- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

Howard Hughes Jr. led an exciting life before his legendary phobias set in. The energetic entrepreneur, who had a penchant for aviation, filmmaking and creating new technology, took a sizable inheritance from his father and transformed himself into America's first billionaire.

One of his more philanthropic endeavors led to an environment in which scientists could conduct cutting-edge research, and, in Mr. Hughes' words, probe "the genesis of life itself."

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), established in 1953, supports 324 biomedical researchers working in 70 labs throughout the United States while developing programs to improve science education at all academic levels.

Just one of its many cyber-outlets accomplishes the latter by allowing inquisitive surfers a chance to learn something about cell and structural biology, genetics, immunology and neuroscience through numerous interactive presentations.


Site address: www.biointeractive.org

Creator: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Chevy Chase, created and supports the site.

Creator quotable: "We created this Web site to provide a place where the general public, but especially high school students and teachers, could go to find fun, engaging and scientifically rigorous information about cutting-edge biomedical research," says Dennis Liu, director of HHMI's BioInteractive Web site.

"We had been designing animations and virtual labs to support a live lecture series, and the Web site was a great vehicle for making these materials work for the largest possible audience. We also produce materials in print, CD, videotape and DVD format. We believe in using the strengths of any media that will reach the audience."

Word from the Webwise: From an unassuming but brightly colored opening page, visitors are taken on a journey into the scientific universe in which acquiring knowledge becomes a dynamic experience.

Five bannerlike icons reveal the sections Virtual Labs, Animations, Virtual Museum, Web Video, and Click and Learn with each using moving illustrations, video, audio, the latest Web design techniques and plenty of text to unleash educational modules.

"So much to do in so little time," became my battle cry as I plunged into the 38 modules. To give just an idea of the diversity to be found among the various sections, here's a look at modules from Virtual Labs, Virtual Museums and Web Video.

I first returned to my days in high school biology class to perform a bit of virtual dissection through the Neurophysiology Laboratory. There, my subject was a leech, and the module carefully explained the equipment needed (even the price) to conduct a demonstration on how nerve cells collect touch information from the skin.

Visitors get to grab the tools and cut into the subject through clever interactive animation snippets and eventually use a macromanipulator, dissection microscope and oscilloscope to identify and measure the voltage of individual neurons and their responses to a feather, probe and forceps. An accompanying glossary and detailed notebook helped explain some of the more difficult concepts and procedures.

Next, I stopped by the Virtual Museum to find a history of infectious diseases in "When Worlds Collide: Micro vs. Macro." This online exhibit mirrors a real one formerly presented at HHMI and comes packed with information on microorganisms and the scientists who uncovered them.

Visitors can either view a 20-minute video, view the exhibit in a 360-degree environment or read accompanying text focusing on everything from epidemiologist John Snow's mapping of the cholera outbreak in the 1800s to the diagramming of the human genome.

Finally, a peek into the Web Video section finds a 70-minute lecture by investigator Masashi Yanagisawa from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who enlightened me on the links between the functions of eating and sleeping.

Ease of use: Visitors with slower Internet connections may suffer during their journey, but because much of the information is text-based, they will not be disappointed.

Those wishing to completely enjoy the site will need a current browser (Netscape 3 or later, Internet Explorer 3 or later), the use of Macromedia's Flash and Shockwave, as well as Apple's QuickTime and the RealPlayer plug-ins and Adobe Acrobat.

Don't miss: I could not resist a look at the module Gender Testing of Female Athletes, found under the Click and Learn section. This walk-through, with the help of a computer mouse, investigates the traits of the male and female human through illustrations and text concentrating on anatomy (not explicit), physiology, chromosomal and genetic makeup, gender identity and gender role behavior.

Visitors become judges who must carefully review the case of 20-year-old Jane Doe and eventually identify her sex. Along the way, they learn about the importance of the SRY (sex-determining region Y) gene in establishing one's sex and even look at the polymerase chain-reaction method that isolates a specific DNA sequence.

Elements on the horizon: Mr. Liu says that after a fairly major redesign of the site is complete, a new virtual lab on genetic engineering will be added that may have as many as 40 new animations focusing on DNA and molecular biology.

Comprehension level: Primarily targeted to a high school audience, the site also has found a home among college and middle school classes because of its many topics.

Overall grade: A+

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the science or technology fan? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise,

The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016;

or send an e-mail message

([email protected]).

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