LOS LUNAS — The portable classroom that began as a teacher’s lounge at School of Dreams Academy is now a nearly-complete biosafety level 1 and 2 STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) research lab.

Felina Martinez | News-Bulletin photo
Jennifer Nilvo is SODA’s K-12 STEM coordinator and gifted teacher.

“It’s important for students to have access to a lab like this so they can have the freedom to explore any STEM topics and freely be able to do that by learning different techniques and using different levels of equipment,” said Jennifer Nilvo, a SODA K-12 STEM coordinator and gifted teacher. “I want them to get them excited about it and be prepared someday to go into STEM careers.”

Once completed, this will be the first lab of its kind in a New Mexico high school. Students will be able to perform a variety of STEM research in the lab related to chemistry, microbiology, engineering, data analysis and more.

Nilvo said getting the lab to where it is now required a lot of construction and pre-planning, but all the work is worth it to have it not feel like it’s just another classroom, but something different.

“We took all the windows out, insulated it and added a working AC. There were previously only two outlets in the entire room. I had to lay out a schematic for the electricians in order for them to install what I needed voltage wise for all the equipment,” Nilvo said. “I came in on weekends to paint the room.”

Nilvo demonstrates how the fume hood is used.

In the lab, students will have access to a variety of professional laboratory equipment. Some of the highlights include Prusa 3D printers, CNC cutting machines, incubators, drying machines, an autoclave machine to sterilize and a fume hood to prevent inhaling hazardous substances.

Nilvo said all students have to complete lab safety training for the equipment before they can use any equipment. They also installed a chemical shower and eyewash station for safety.

To make her vision a reality, Nilvo has applied to the Meta Community Action Grant Program for the last three years and has so far been awarded $140,000 to put toward the lab.

Through her most recent award, Nilvo purchased a professional fruit fly incubator for the lab to conduct research in neurology and genetics. The SODA teacher will help to facilitate the continuation of collaborative research between her students and University of New Mexico researchers.

“I met with Dr. Syed from UNM who does research on neuroscience and genetics,” she said. “He invited me to bring some students up last spring for a three-day workshop to experiment with fruit flies and see what it was like.”

Fruit flies are commonly used as model organisms for researchers to study genetics, neurology and more due to their brain being very similar to a humans, given they have a lot less neurons which makes their brain easier to study. It’s also relatively easy to manipulate their DNA for genetics research. Since they go through their lifespans quickly, scientists are able to observe results faster.

“He wants to help our students publish work while they are in high school, which would be really nice,” Nilvo said. “They just got the grant, so were probably looking at six years of it.

“They will provide us with the flies. They also plan on having mini-work shops here to help continue the work and help us set up different experiments.”

10th grader Lilahh Arabie will use the lab to continue her neuroscience research with fruit flies.

One student who attended the workshop, 10th grader Lilahh Arabie, was inspired to create her own fruit fly experiment,  which won her second place in two separate categories at the Central New Mexico Research Challenge.

“I had a set number of fruit flies that I put through tests in a wind tunnel with different sensory information, like different smells and images,” Arabie said. “I did that over several days to see how well they remembered it and if they went faster every time since they were more used to it and able to remember it.”

During control trials, there was no image at the bottom of the wind tunnel, and during the image trials she put a black piece of paper at the bottom. Arabie wanted to see if they would remember the black paper and associate it with a reward of soda at the end of the tunnel.

Arabie used a wind tunnel with different sensory information inside to test the memory of fruit flies.

“There is definitely a noticeable difference with the images. The way I measured how well they remember is by how much they were flying because when they are flying they are intentionally going somewhere,” Arabie said. “In the trials with images, there’s less time spent pausing and more time spent flying than in the control trials.”

Arabie said with Nilvo’s lab, she’ll have the space and technology needed to continue her research interests.

“Having Ms. Nilvo here to help guide us through it is also very helpful,” Arabie said. “Until you have hands-on experience, you don’t know if you really want to do something.”

The lab will also be open to students outside of SODA as Nilvo intends to host workshops throughout the year at the lab for students across Valencia County.

“I would love for fourth through 12th grade students who want to do a research project, but do not have a teacher who can work with them or sponsor them to be able to reach out to me and I can mentor them in designing a scientific or engineering research project that is equivalent to higher college level work, and present their research findings at various competitions throughout the year,” she said.

Nilvo hopes to have the rest of the equipment for the lab by May, and wants to have the lab fully completed and functional by the beginning of next school year.

In the meantime, students from her research classes are already working in the lab on various award-winning projects.

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.