Teacher learns, then teaches biotech to Port Angeles High School students

PORT ANGELES — The Teacher in the Lab program allows Port Angeles High School biology teacher Jennifer Duncan-Taylor the chance to explore the secret lives of fish.

Duncan-Taylor spent her summer learning about extracting DNA from the fins of fish and analyzing it to determine whether the fish of the Elwha River are hybrid — meaning that different species bred — or purebred salmon or trout.

The project is through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will use findings in work related to the tear-down of dams and restoration of the Elwha River.

Duncan-Taylor brought the lessons back to her students, who will, on their own time, learn about biotechnology.

The students spent several hours on a recent Saturday learning how to use the tools to extract the species markers from fish fins, and soon, they will have the chance to put it to practical use.

Duncan-Taylor is working with Gary Winans, the principal investigator with NOAA’s Montlake facility in Seattle; Jon Baker, who works part time for NOAA and at Mukilteo High School; and Michele Wolski, who teaches at Arlington High School.

“It is interesting for all of the teachers — but for us, it is really cool because it is right here in our backyard,” said Duncan-Taylor, who learned about the opportunity and applied for a spot in the program.

Duncan-Taylor spent three weeks of the summer in Mukilteo doing lab work, tracing and recording the genetic markers on 200 fish.

Ultimately, the work will be used by NOAA to monitor the fish of the Elwha River as the dams are taken out in a restoration effort by Olympic National Park.

“This information can be used for the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years,” she said.

She will return to Mukilteo this summer to continue the research.

“It is really a learning experience for me,” she said.

She said that the real-life lab experience is invaluable to teaching students about biotechnology.

The program is meant to give teachers lab experience, which they can then use to interest students.

“This biotech stuff is so interesting,” Duncan-Taylor said.

And, she noted, “It is amazing to get 12 or 15 students here on a Saturday doing lab work.”

The fish for the experiments are caught and released.

They are stunned momentarily, a tiny piece of fin is clipped, then the fish is released back into the water.

“It might be a stunning experience, but certainly not harmful,” she said.

Ultimately, Duncan-Taylor hopes, the project will expand to other North Olympic Peninsula creeks and rivers.

“We like to call it the ‘Salish Sea Project,’” she said.

“We would love to, say, get teachers from British Columbia involved and have a whole map of genetics for the whole Salish Sea ecosystem.”

Duncan-Taylor said the experience has also provided an interesting insight into the dam-removal project.

“There are all these sides to it,” she said.

“You have the National Park’s restoration effort and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s cultural side, and here we have a whole different side with the genetics.”

Demolition will begin in mid-September on the 105-foot Elwha Dam that creates Lake Aldwell and the 201-foot Glines Canyon Dam that forms Lake Mills.

The dams are being taken down in the hope of restoring salmon runs.

Both dams were built without fish passage in the early 20th century, so Pacific salmon were blocked from migrating as far as 70 miles upstream to spawn.

The massive project is expected to be completed in March 2014 with a total project cost of $350 million.

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Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at paige.dickerson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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