Labs in a box: U-M professor, student take high-level biology lessons to Benzie County high school

Michigan News

Students in Racquel Huddleston’s biology class at Benzie Central High School in northern Michigan show enormous promise to be life-changing scientists.

Even so, the classroom has lacked funding and tools to support the students’ scientific curiosities.

But since 2015, University of Michigan student Taylor Nye along with Lyle Simmons, U-M associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, have been working with Huddleston’s class. Nye, a graduate of Benzie Central, and Simmons decided to take their love of science—and education—back to Nye’s hometown of Benzonia.

Nye points to a student in the classroom, while Simmons stands smiling in the background.

“What is most important is to see other students succeed,” says PhD candidate Taylor Nye. All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

Every year, they box up labs on topics such as bacteria and the human genome, pack them into their car and drive 250 miles to Benzonia to unpack what becomes not only high-level scientific discovery but self-discovery.

Simmons is convinced of the potential of the students.

Huddleston, he said, “was able to produce excellent students who really understand biology very well. Where she has been limited is the laboratory.”

Huddleston was Nye’s teacher so she can relate to the excellent program in the school.

Nye wears safety goggles and a white lab coat while looking in a box of genetic design kits.

An NSF grant helped Benzie Central get research tools and laptops. All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

“Despite limited resources, Racquel works tirelessly to push groups of talented students from a rural community in northern Michigan to achieve goals they do not imagine possible,” Nye said. “Lyle and I have set out to assist her to provide resources, awareness and opportunities to these students.”

Nye said she also knows that many of the students don’t see themselves as future scientists, even with their talents and accomplishments, and they don’t see themselves at universities learning from top researchers.

The lessons they bring spark the best kind of reaction in science lovers that fill Huddleston’s advanced placement class at Benzie Central, a school of 412 students.

“It’s something that not many high schools kids are going to get to experience,” said Emma Lane, an 11th-grader who hopes to attend college.

Classmate Parker Bentley is considering studying biology after high school. And fellow bio student, Ausable Kreine, wants to go into the medical field.

Simmons and Nye have secured $12,000 in National Science Foundation grants for the class. Besides providing and teaching the labs that fall under the science of bioinformatics, the pair have purchased six MacBook Airs for the teens, sponsored science competitions, hosted trips for Benzie students to visit the U-M campus, and brought U-M grad students to Benzie to present their theses, including one as rap.

A few students squat in the snow, collecting enough to put in petri dishes.

Benzie students run experiments on snow—a natural resource Michigan has plenty of! All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

They also talk about the possibility of paying for college with U-M’s Go Blue Guarantee and discuss career options. The pair have also purchased a spectrophotometer and hotplate, created cross-campus communications for science students and injected many other contributions and activities, reaching more than 600 students in less than five years.

“The Benzie Central faculty, led by Racquel, have been incredibly engaged and supportive throughout this endeavor. I truly believe that, given the chance, the students we work with from Benzie have tremendous potential to contribute to the academic and diversity initiatives at U-M,” Nye said.

“The University of Michigan is a state school,” Simmons said. “We need to do what we can to give back to students in the state.”

Racquel Huddleston stands in her lab, looking slightly to the right of the camera with a slight smile.

“I want my kids to feel that they are confident enough…to do whatever they want to do.” All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

Thinking of how the collaboration has touched her students brings tears to Huddleston’s eyes.

“I know that Dr. Simmons isn’t the only professor at U-M like that, but we sure are lucky that he cares about Benzie Central and that he sees what we see here—that these are amazing students,” she said. “Taylor’s part of that, you know, and I could tell you story after story of kids that they’ve made a huge difference in.”

“Labs in a Box” is the latest in the This Is Michigan series, which highlights U-M connected people, programs and projects making an impact in communities across the state.
Video Produced by Bob Berg, Michigan Media

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