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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 30, 2009 11 years ago

High-schoolers fish for crime clues

by: Loren Mayo Black Tie Editor

A group of 10 investigators, donning orange hard hats, white lab coats and eye goggles, huddled around a blue countertop filled with microbial products, test tubes, cleaning agents and tightly bottled chemical solutions in an Osprey Biotechnics lab room. 

In one corner, Dr. Christopher Reuter inspected ampoules, or viles, of bacterial culture strains inside a liquid-nitrogen dewar, kept at a temperature of minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit. Across the room, lab
Manager Kate Bratten completed her daily lab routine. 

Together, the group examined bacterial growth and cultures on a plate of agar (a type of gelatin) that would aid them in solving — and cleaning up — the latest environmental crime. 

Since 2005, through the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, gifted and high-achieving students from area high schools have gotten real-world crime-solving experience through the Fishing for the Truth: Multidisciplinary Exploration of an Environmental Crime Scene Investigation program.

This summer, on their quest to solve a hypothetical crime, in which perpetrators dumped toxic materials into the bay, they’ve traveled to the city morgue, crime lab and nearby beaches. They’ve even seen dead bodies — fake ones, of course. Following their investigation, they will present their cases to the state attorney, and two people will be “arrested.”

The class traveled to Osprey Biotechnics Wednesday, July 22, to get a lesson on bacteria. Reuter and Vice President of Business Development Victoria Finley explained how the firm uses its microbial products and beneficial bacteria to clean up pollution in commercial applications.

“We also wanted the environmental aspect, so students are going through the regular analysis of chemicals,” said program Director Dr. David Friedenbach. “Today is how we clean it up.”

Also referred to as the Governor’s Program, because the program is made possible from the Governor’s Summer Grant through the Florida Department of Education, the educational opportunity focuses on crime-scene investigation and, this year, included additional lab work.

Friedenbach says the class gives students a taste of what it’s like to be a crime investigator and has sparked an interest in a few along their route to college.

Students will have studied a variety of math, biology and chemistry questions throughout the five-week class.

“We went to the morgue and Manatee Crime in Bradenton yesterday and also the beach,” said participant Stasia Buckley. “The best part — we saw a dead body.”

Reuter presented a brief slideshow on microbiology, explaining how microorganisms grow, develop and biomass. Then, the students conducted an experiment in which they pressed their thumbs on the agar inside a Petri dish to see what bacteria appeared, then washed their hands and repeated the process to see if there was a decrease in bacteria.

“Part of the crime was identifying what the next step would be after the chemicals were dumped,” Friedenbach said. “They’re a great group.”

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