Hill District Community Lab Makes Citizen Scientists Of Students

Jul 9, 2018

Citizen Science Lab Founder and Director Andre Samuel (center).
Credit Elaine Effort / 90.5 WESA

One of the few community bio-medical labs in the nation is located in Pittsburgh's Hill District. 

It's a place where students, non-scientists and professionals alike can experiment and learn. The Citizen Science Lab operates under the direction of its founder Professor Andre Samuel, who says some students at first have to be "dragged by the ear" by their parents to the lab, but end up asking to come back for more. 

Samuel spoke with 90.5 WESA contributor Elaine Effort. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ELAINE EFFORT: Dr. Andre Samuel, what goes on at the Citizen Science Lab?

ANDRE SAMUEL: Wow. Let me tell you. We do a lot here. This summer we're doing specific weeks of summer camp, where each summer camp has a specific theme. Right now we're doing the mini-microbiology camp. So, all the students are learning about microbiology and their techniques and how to identify different types of bacteria.

We have a pretty awesome synthetic biology team that meets throughout the year. This is a group of Homewood students; most of them attend Westinghouse. They're competing in this huge international synthetic biology competition that occurs in Boston in October. And they are trying to address issues of renewable energy using gene transformation in bacteria, so it's really, really exciting stuff.

EFFORT: What was your motivation for starting the lab?

SAMUEL: I always wanted to do something to sort of increase the interest of my community and youth in my community in STEM and in science. And I always felt that there was a lack of that. You can go anywhere in any neighborhood and learn how to shoot a basketball through a hoop and stuff like that, but, for those of us who really want to be curious about science, there's not place for us to go.

EFFORT: Why did you pick this area to have the Citizen Science Lab? Is it because it was available or were trying to target a specific population?

SAMUEL: The main reason was we wanted to make sure that our location was in a neighborhood that needed access. We didn't want to put this lab in another neighborhood where the children have access to all sorts of things already. We wanted to make sure that Hill District residents get direct access to a facility like this and have it so that everyone else can come here from outside the area, rather than having to worry about our students having to leave this area to get these great resources.

EFFORT: What kind of equipment is here? What are you working with here?

SAMUEL: Everything here is industry or academic-grade equipment. Real microscopes. Our own genetic sequencer, so, not only can we amplify genes, but we can now sequence those genes ourselves--we don't have to send it out to someone. We have our own electrophoresis equipment. So, we can run DNA gels, protein gels, RNA gels. Laptops where we can do computer modeling and simulation of proteins. It's a top-notch facility.

EFFORT: And what's next for the Citizen Science Lab?

SAMUEL: Next is our expansion. I'm really excited about opening up a second site. And we're looking to open up a second site in the South Hills, and that's just the first step for us. We are hoping to have a Citizen Science Lab in all four corners of the Pittsburgh region and eventually become a national model.

This is a dream come true for me, so I'm extremely happy that people are showing an interest in what we're doing here because this a very important mission for us.