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BioBus visits Frederick Douglass II

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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