BioBus visits Frederick Douglass II

Wilson Darko, 15, applied oil to an amoeba sample inside the BioBus. Darko, of Trinity Avenue, hopes to become an engineer. Photos by Robert Benimoff

Tyler Schlotterbeck of Morris Park is a science nut. So is Peter Borges of Walton Avenue. Trouble is, Schlotterbeck, 15, and Borges, 16, attend Frederick Douglass Academy III on 3rd Avenue. FDA III is a solid school but has no science lab.

Enter the BioBus, a bodacious lab on wheels. On Wednesday, May 6, the BioBus visited FDA III; Schlotterbeck and Borges climbed aboard to track amoebas and photograph nuclei.

“The BioBus? Pretty cool,” Borges said. “I wish I had one.”

Last year, Columbia University PhD Ben Dubin-Thaler spurned the Ivy League circuit. In the Bronx, he knew, fewer than 40 percent of students pass the state’s earth science exam. Dubin-Thaler bought a 1974 San Francisco metro bus and motored cross-country.

The BioBus contains a computer lounge and research-grade microscopes. Solar panels and a wind turbine power the lab. The BioBus runs on recycled vegetable oil. Dubin-Thaler will tour 20 Bronx schools by the end of June. On May 18, the BioBus will visit M.S. 80. Dubin-Thaler wants to stimulate enthusiasm for science and close the “achievement gap.” Caucasian-American students often outperform African Americans and Hispanic Americans on science tests.

“There are millions of students in the United States who enjoy a top-notch science education,” Dubin-Thaler said. “Millions more don’t. As a scientist, it’s my responsibility to help.”

The BioBus is a triple threat. First, it offers valuable hands-on experience; the BioBus boasts $10,000 microscopes – the same instruments Dubin-Thaler used at Columbia. Second, the BioBus carries Dubin-Thaler and his scientist friends. Ragan Robertson coached Schlotterbeck and Borges on May 6. Young and soft-spoken, Robertson is a BioBus volunteer.

“The students have this image of what a scientist looks like,” said Jared Fox, an FDA III biology teacher. “Old guy in a lab coat.”

Third, the BioBus is fun. Ashley DuBose, 16, and William Darko, 15, stayed after school to experiment. DuBose liked recording amoeba movements on video. Darko, a budding engineer, drooled over Bio Bus’ delicate microscopes.

“It looks like a hippie bus,” Darko said. “But it has all this technology.”

Parent associations support the BioBus project. In the Bronx, Dubin-Thaler operates thanks to a federal GEAR-UP grant. He visited FDA III last fall; it was his first weeklong stop. Dubin-Thaler parks the BioBus on 3rd Avenue.

“People in the Bronx have been great,” Dubin-Thaler said. “So receptive. So friendly.”

Students will staff the BioBus at public events. Dubin-Thaler is determined to keep Schlotterbeck and Borges engaged.

“We need more scientists in the world,” Schlotterbeck said. “We need to cure cancer and AIDS.”

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