Christine Marizzi: Hands-on Austrian Scientist Takes New York by Storm
Where would you look for a high-energy Austrian scientist with a passion for genetics and microbiology – more specifically, a passion for botanical stem-cell mutants, rainforest fieldwork, and Cretan orchids?
Perhaps the University of Vienna? Sure. Rainforest of the Austrians in Costa Rica? Natürlich! Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s DNA Learning Center West in Long Island, NY? Ideal place for her. Inner-city New York City schools? Hmmm … can you run that one by me again?
Yes, you heard correctly. Christine Marizzi, PhD, has undertaken professional projects in all of the above. But her work with middle school, high school, and college students throughout the NYC area has become one of the most fulfilling aspects of her scientific career.
“In the lab, I aided graduate students with their research projects, and I was a tutor for the Vienna Open Lab … a program designed to give students and adults formative experiences in science,” says Marizzi about her interest in teaching. For several years she also developed and coordinated workshops for wienXtra in Vienna, including a program whose participants used biochemistry and biotechnology to develop new recipes for soap-boiling workshops.
Then, in 2011, while contemplating a post-doc at New York University, she received a job offer from the DNA Learning Center (DNALC) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island. It truly was an offer she couldn’t refuse, and it changed the course of her life. As an educator at DNALC, Marizzi gets to teach courses in genetics and cell biology, and works near world-class scientists as part of an inspiring team.
Among her numerous innovative and creative activities in science education, several stand out: the prize-winning Urban Biome MAP, the Urban Barcode Project, and the Harlem DNA Lab. All are striking examples of how Marizzi brings science to the general public – youth and adults –through projects that engage them and can even contribute to scientific knowledge.
But before diving into those fascinating programs, let’s get acquainted with Marizzi herself. What combination of “nature and nurture” (she is a geneticist, after all) prepared her so well for a career in science education?
“I grew up in the Southern part of the small and sleepy country called Austria, surrounded by beautiful glass-clear lakes and rivers and incredible mountainous ridges,” explains Marizzi. As a child, she collected plants for her herbarium and enjoyed drawing them with pastels, as well as cooking with wild herbs and homegrown vegetables and fruits. “My almond and lemon pesto is still highly requested,” she reports with a smile, crediting yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as her special ingredient.
Her sense of adventure and love of field work attracted her to exotic sites and research topics such as the rainforest field station in Costa Rica and wild orchid pollination in Crete. Eventually, she pursued doctoral research on genetic regulation of leaf initiation in Arabidopsis thaliana at the noted Max. F. Perutz Laboratories, University of Vienna. Yet, Marizzi never regarded science as an ivory tower activity. She always preferred the hands-on approach, and working with students afforded many opportunities to communicate science using concrete examples.
The Urban Biome MAP
From May through October 2015, Marizzi developed and implemented a project that was part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival 2015. True to her leanings, it was a hands-on project: engaging with the public, piquing their interest in NYC’s microbiome, and producing a “microbial map” of NYC.
Petri-plates with bacteria modified with fluorescent protein under UV light, show parts of NYC grid map. (Source: Marta Molina Gomez and Ali Schachtschneider).
Marizzi, the Scientific Leader – along with Project Leader (and Genspace co-founder) Nurit Bar-Shai and a team of Citizen Scientists and Artists from Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn, NY – invited people attending Festival 2015 to learn about microbes by participating in the project. Escherichia coli (aka E. coli) has a bad reputation among the public, due to the outbreaks of food poisoning attributed to it each year. Yet E. coli strains are present in nearly everyone and rarely cause disease in their hosts. In fact, the K-12 strain that Marizzi used has been grown in labs for decades and no longer can thrive in human intestines.
For the Urban Biome project, these harmless E. coli bacteria were engineered for use as “microbial paint” by adding genes for fluorescent proteins to their genetic repertoire. Green, red, and yellow fluorescent proteins (GFP, RFP, and YFP) produced by the bacterial cells make them glow like tiny neon signs when stimulated by UV light.
More than 50 volunteers received square Petri dishes prepared with LB agar and stenciled portions of Manhattan’s grid map. Carefully gloved for the occasion, people painted E. coli suspensions onto the agar, following outlines of streets, parks, and waterways. A week later, participants returned to the Genspace lab to see how the bacterial colonies had grown, and to discuss GMOs, genetic engineering, and how scientists map microbial ecosystems. However, the high point was making bacteria prints from their cultures, collectively creating a bacteria -printed map of Manhattan!
In late September, their artistic science product – the NYC Biome MAP – was awarded 2nd place in the first international Agar Art contest of the American Society for Microbiologists! ASM even invited Bar-Shai and Marizzi to present the work at ASM headquarters in Washington, DC.
The Urban Barcode Project
Marizzi also mentors teachers and students in the NYC Urban Barcode Project competition, a research competition to stimulate New York high school students to study biodiversity in NYC using DNA technology.
What is an “Urban Barcode” anyway? In the world of genetics, a barcode is a DNA sequence about 600 nucleotides long that uniquely identifies any living organism. In 2003, a Canadian scientist, Paul Hebert, proposed that DNA sequences from a standardized region of the genome could be used to identify all species. Named by analogy with grocery-store barcodes, barcoding enables precise identification of species that are often difficult to identify by traditional means.
Source: J. Wolf, Flushing International High School
In the Urban Barcode Project, students design research projects that use DNA barcoding to explore the environment and detect food or medicinal mislabeling. Their projects involve the same processes required of professional scientists: writing proposals for peer review, completing fieldwork, carrying out laboratory DNA analyses, and presenting results to the scientific community and peers at an annual symposium. So far, students have produced over 131 novel DNA sequences, which are being published to Genbank with students as authors, making their data freely available. In one noteworthy 2012 project, students at a Bronx high school discovered that widely sold herbal supplements did not contain Ginkgo biloba as they claimed; instead, the students found DNA from rice! As a result of their study, the NY attorney general confirmed the fraud and ordered that sale of these herbal supplements cease. The students won first prize in the Urban Barcode Project competition conducted by DNALC.
The Harlem DNA Lab
In Summer 2013, Marizzi ran the Urban Barcode Research Program at the Harlem DNA Lab, a state-of-the art lab operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory inside Junior High School 45 in East Harlem. “There was no real science education going on, specifically in East Harlem, where there’s a need for STEM education,” Marizzi explains.
The Harlem DNA Lab is an attempt by the city to reduce the learning loss that typically occurs during the summer by increasing inner-city students’ exposure to STEM subjects. The free summer program includes 55 hours of training in conservation genetics and DNA barcoding. Classes operate for five weeks at 11 schools in many of the poorest areas of the Bronx. One summer project involved electrophoresis using DNA that Marizzi extracted – “with permission” she notes – from plants growing in NYC’s Central Park.
Marizzi is constantly impressed with her students’ dedication and hopes that awareness of the Harlem DNA Lab will spread. “It’s a perfect place to expose kids to science, especially students who don’t have the opportunity to get science in school.” Teaching these “budding scientists” is only the beginning of the game, she says, not the conclusion.
Always eager to gain new experiences and get involved in more projects, she would love to become involved in even more! But there are “too many projects, too little time.” Still, it takes more than that to discourage an energetic Austrian educator/scientist like Christine Marizzi.