Drive-thru lab

Dubin-Thaler’s mobile microscopy lab.
Courtesy of Ben Dubin-Thaler

It’s a cloudy May afternoon in the Bronx, and cell biologist Ben Dubin-Thaler is standing in his cramped 1974 General Motors “Fishbowl” bus with a small group of seventh graders, ready to talk microscopy. “The first slide we’re going to look at is an onion skin,” he says to the group. “Now, who can draw what a plant cell looks like?” One student eagerly raises his hand and proceeds to draw a near-perfect rectangle on the mini-whiteboard to indicate the cell wall. Dubin-Thaler has only been visiting schools for about 3 months, but the routine is already becoming familiar. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years before, he was finishing his PhD in cell biology at Columbia University and considering taking a research position in Singapore.

It was during that trip to Singapore that Dubin-Thaler found out his...

He used his connections in the scientific community to convert the bus into a microscopy lab—Columbia donated a fluorescent microscope, and Olympus provided both a phase contrast microscope and a stereomicroscope—and applied for education grants to help fund local school visits. Now, shuttling his Fishbowl (dubbed the BioBus) between New York City schools is Dubin-Thaler’s full-time job.

As unique as the BioBus project sounds, it’s actually part of a growing group of mobile laboratory projects. Craig Venter started one in 2006, and several universities have begun investing in mobile labs as part of their local educational outreach programs. “The main thing for me has been the total wonder and engagement when the students come on the bus,” says Dubin-Thaler. “Plus, it’s a great way of connecting teachers with people in the research community.” Dubin-Thaler makes a point of bringing different researchers along with him each time he visits a school. For many of the students, it’s their first time meeting a scientist and their first time using the tools of a laboratory. Watching the students make their first connection with microscopy is incredibly rewarding, says biologist Nicolas Biais, who worked with Dubin-Thaler at Columbia and has gone out on the BioBus several times. “When you show them something, they just get it instantly,” he says.

Dubin-Thaler also uses the BioBus to educate students about sustainability issues. The bus gets its electricity from a 4-foot-high wind turbine and solar panels on the roof, and the engine runs entirely on vegetable oil. For Dubin-Thaler, the choice to make the bus sustainable was as much about being practical as it was about being eco-friendly. “Going to different locations every week, you rarely have access to electrical outlets,” he explains. “A lot of people use generators, but generators can be loud and temperamental. Plus, they use a lot of fuel.”

Over the summer, Dubin-Thaler remodeled the bus’s interior, replacing the kitchenette with bench space so he can add pipettes and other lab equipment. He has also been trying to amass funds to equip the bus with broadband Internet, which would enable video conferencing with scientists outside New York and make it easier to maintain long-term projects with the schools he visits. At some point, Dubin-Thaler wants to have students doing original research, with different schools contributing small parts of the project. Carried on long enough, he and the students might even get a publication out of it, he muses. “I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do PhD-level work on this bus,” he says.

Dubin-Thaler and the BioBus are scheduled to attend schools in New York City through the year, but eventually he hopes his services will not be in such high demand. Having put together his mobile lab on a shoestring budget, he is trying to encourage schools to do the same. All of the microscopes on the BioBus were donated, but Dubin-Thaler says even if schools had to buy their own instruments they could duplicate his project for about $100,000, a relatively small price compared to the cost of building a stationary laboratory. “Some of the experiments we do on the bus require top-of-the-line equipment, but there are plenty of others that teachers could do cheaply,” he says.

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