NEWARK, NJ — Water is an often overlooked component of everyday life, but for Malcolm X Shabazz High School teacher Patrick Murray’s aquatic biogeochemistry club, the liquid is an opportunity to connect with a world of research and science that stretches beyond Newark.
Over the past seven years, Murray and several generations of his students have performed original aquatic enzyme research that has turned commonly held beliefs about aquatic microbes on their heads.
In 2013, Murray, looking for an innovative way to challenge his students while earning grant dollars for his classroom, leveraged a relationship with a researcher at the University of Tennessee, Andrew Steen, who saw the potential benefit of training high school students to collect data.
Murray wrote a $10,000 proposal for what would become the biogeochemistry club, Steen included Malcolm X Shabazz in his $500,000 grant, and both men triaged their grants together to create one of the only high school science clubs contributing data to a university-level research project.
“At first, I was concerned about getting such young students involved in real research. I had an experiment that had a technique I hadn’t taught to high school students, but I need a lot of data at the same time,” Steen said.
Steen’s research set out to collect water samples from several water sources and study the digestive enzymes their microbes make. That year, he traveled with Murray’s initial seven students to the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) and trained the students on how to record the data.
And then something unexpectedly wonderful happened.
“On the first trip, I had to tell the students that we figured out something that no one else knows,” Steen remembers.
Formerly, the biogeochemistry community believed that looking at one enzyme was enough to determine if a microbe is hungry. Thanks to the research Murray’s students performed with Steen, researchers know this is no longer true.
Year after year, students passed on knowledge to new students in the club, creating generations of peer-to-peer learning. Murray and his students started attending the American Geophysical Union Conference in 2016, even earning the praises of Billy Williams, the organization’s vice president of ethics’ diversity and inclusion.
“This contradicts the general perception of what our school is known for, like ‘oh, it’s a really bad school.’ But there are a lot of really good programs and a lot of really good opportunities,” said Shabazz junior and biogeochemistry team member Sheyi Ikujuni.
Murray’s current group of juniors and seniors are as well-versed as they are hardworking. With so many years of work before to build on, this year the team of 15 is focusing on determining the structure of the enzymes.
“You shouldn’t underestimate these kids. If they have a little bit of faith and understanding of what’s going on, and they believe in me, so if I tell them it’s worth doing, they’ll do it,” Murray said.
Most remarkable of all, Malcolm X Shabazz High School Aquatic Biogeochemistry Team is listed as a contributor in a 2018 peer-review research article from Frontiers in Microbiology. The accolade is one that will allow Murray, who retires this year, to close out his teaching days with a sense of accomplishment.
That, and knowing what his club imparts helps make his students feel exceptional.
“I like to know things that other people don’t, you stick out, and not in a negative way like how people regularly think our community does,” said junior biogeochemistry team member Jabez King.