MIT-educated scientist brings his love of microbiology to T.C. Williams

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

When MIT doctoral student Tyler DeWitt finished a lesson on bacteria and mold-derived antibiotics, questions from local students rolled in. But most were not about the unseen organisms he had spent 45 minutes discussing.

“How did you get into your career?” one student asked.

“What’s your typical day in the lab like?” another inquired.

For him, that meant mission accomplished. DeWitt visited students at the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus’ STEM academy Monday to spur students’ interest in science as they go through high school and prepare for college.

DeWitt stressed that students should learn not only basic scientific principles, but also how they are used in interesting and hands-on ways. Too often, science lessons neglect to show the “fun side” of the subject, he said.

“I think it’s really important for students to see the many faces of science,” DeWitt said. “The things that researchers are doing in the lab are a lot different from what they’re learning in school.”

DeWitt explained how scientists realized that if they synthesized a chemical produced by certain molds, they could use it to treat bacterial infections. As an example, he demonstrated how bleu cheese kills mold on a petri dish just like concentrated amoxicillin.

But he warned his curious audience not to eat moldy food as a substitute for antibiotics.

“You would have to eat so much bleu cheese that it would be disgusting,” he said. “It would be at least a car full.”

Life as a scientist doesn’t involve the rote memorization occasionally needed in high school, DeWitt said, like studying the periodic table or types of genes in DNA. Once you master those basic ideas the fun begins.

“It’s like I’m solving puzzles all day,” he said. “I look at how to combat certain bacteria, and if I get stuck on something, I talk with other people and we try different ideas. It’s a lot of problem solving.”

DeWitt, who has been a TED speaker, is challenging teachers to incorporate more real-world applications of science in the classroom. That will encourage a more diverse population of students to explore science as a career.

“We’re not all old, boring white dudes,” he said. “That’s such a stereotypical view of science, and kids won’t go into science if they think it will be boring.”

Mason Rangel, a ninth grade student at the Minnie Howard STEM academy, said he enjoyed DeWitt’s “almost theatrical” delivery of the lesson. He connected easily with the material, and the visit encouraged him to pursue science as he considers college.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I have a passion for medicine, so it was uplifting for me. Science can be intimidating, so to see a person say, ‘I’m this person, and here’s how I did it,’ it’s definitely a very educational experience.”

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