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<br>Ms. West, far right, shows elementary students how to look at diseases of the blood.

Ms. West, far right, shows elementary students how to look at diseases of the blood.

STEM Innovator Influences Future Generations of Scientists

Monday, April 1, 2013

For more than a decade, Kathryn “Kat” Milly West, MS, MT(ASCP), has been instilling a love of scientific inquiry in elementary and high school students with the hopes that they will become laboratory professionals one day.

As Coordinator of the Laboratory and Medical Technology program at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., Ms. West focuses primarily on teaching college students. She has developed a significant following among elementary and high school students, however, who attend various science camps that she helped to create at Auburn University.

“Kat lets her students know that they can succeed in science, and that is a huge boost to their confidence.”
—Emily McGinty, MLS(ASCP)CM

Over the past several years, STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) activities have spread cross-country like wildfire in elementary and high schools to boost U.S. global competitiveness in the sciences and to address impending workforce shortages. Ms. West was clearly in the vanguard when she helped to initiate the clinical laboratory science camps at Auburn University in the late 1990s. Ms. West utilized the study of forensics and the study of blood and diseases to pique the interest of children of all ages.

Over the years, her college students have helped her teach the younger students. 

“The science camps are interactive, and the children get to see that science can be fun,” says Emily McGinty, MLS(ASCP)CM, who assisted at the camps while a student in Ms. West’s clinical laboratory science program.

During the week-long, summer science camp for middle school students, Ms. West lets her creativity go into overdrive and then adds a little chutzpa. She once borrowed a human skull and bones from the University’s anatomy laboratory, placed them on a gurney, and covered them with clothes that appeared blood-stained. She draped a cloth on top and put yellow crime-scene tape around the area.

“They loved it,” Ms. West recalls, with a laugh. “I’d tell the students that they were working on a real case. The first day was the only day they could look at the remains of the crime scene and the body.” 

After telling the students a story about the “victim,” she led them through the scientific inquiry needed to solve the case. Together, the group analyzed red stains on the victim’s shirt to determine whether they were blood or ketchup and, if they were blood, whether it was human or animal blood. After determining it was human blood, students identified the blood type and worked to match it up against blood types of the “suspects.”

“I asked if we can convict someone with only one match of evidence, and they said, ‘No!’” Ms. West says. “We gathered DNA from the suspects and the crime scene. They electrophoresed the DNA to see which of the suspects’ DNA matches that found at the crime scene. They also used a microscope to analyze hair, cloth samples, and fingerprints. All of this data is collected and compared on a single data sheet. Ultimately, they solved the case. Everyone was very engaged.”

Whether it is inspiring elementary and high school students or teaching college students, Ms. West is passionate about imparting her love of science to others.

“Kat lets her students know that they can succeed in science, and that is a huge boost to their confidence,” says Ms. McGinty, now a medical laboratory scientist at Russell Medical Center, Alexander City, Ala.