In learning how to measure melatonin sulfate, a chemical produced in the pineal gland of the brain, Jacqueline Alton, a chemistry teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, has taken on the role of student this summer to share with her students the experience of working in a professional lab.

Alton has been working in the Clinical Neuroscience Lab of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda as part of a summer fellowship program for local science teachers run by the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration. The program, in its first year, sent 18 area teachers, many of them from Maryland, to the three local institutes run by the federal agency.

"It's nice to be participating in real life applications of science, to see how real science is done," said Alton. In school "we mostly focus on lesson plans and objectives, but fail to get an understanding of how labs actually work."

The teachers competed for the fellowships, which run for two months and include a stipend of $5,000. The program was established in the hopes that through direct research experiences in established scientific labs, high school teachers would be more knowledgeable about and interested in scientific research, and would be able to convey this to their classes, thereby attracting more high school students to careers in biomedical research, said Frederick Goodwin, administrator of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Heath Administration.

"What's been needed is more hands-on experience. Kids have a natural scientific curiosity, and it's not being adequately stoked," said Goodwin.

"By bringing the teachers in direct contact with the scientists," Goodwin said, the program would serve as one step toward reversing the current slump in American secondary education in the sciences.

"Right now we're 13th out of 13 in high school science performance {in industrialized countries}, as compared to first place in the 1960s," he added.

Patricia Nauman, a biology teacher at Immaculata College High School in Rockville, worked at the National Institutes of Mental Health neuropsychology lab. She performed behavior tests on baby Rhesus monkeys, studying the anatomy of their memory. The work being done in that lab may eventually be used to benefit those with Alzheimer's disease and other memory disfunctions.

Nauman said one of her most interesting observations was that dealing with baby monkeys proved not too dissimilar to dealing with human babies.

"The monkeys would do things you didn't expect," she said, talking about one experiment where in attempting to find food pellets under one of two objects, some of the monkeys learned that if they rapidly looked at both objects they could find their food. "They were too quick sometimes," she noted.

In noting the impact of her experience, Nauman also said that as most research experiments take a great deal of time to conduct, it similarly "takes a long time to instill the importance of research into the kids."

Anne Lippold, another participant in the program, worked primarily in the lab library. She searched through literature on pre-menstrual syndrome and panic disorder, which resulted in a research paper on each subject.

Lippold, a biology teacher at The Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, did the search so that the scientist performing a study on the problems would be fully prepared when beginning.

Lippold said she is pleased she can relay what she's learned from a lab setting in her teaching. "I've taught {my students} about lab and other procedures, so you can apply what you've learned," Lippold said.

Traci Vernon worked in a lab with Capuchin monkeys, assisting in studies to measure the animals' brain waves while performing certain tasks. A lab science and biology teacher at Gaithersburg High School, Vernon said her experiences will have some impact on her students when school starts in September.

"I experienced the everyday life of a researcher," said Vernon. And contrary to many people's ideas of scientific research, she said, the work can be exhilarating. "You get really enthused about what you're doing," she said.

Goodwin is looking forward to expanding the program not only in Maryland, but also nationwide. The Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration runs 80 to 85 percent of its research out of university labs around the country and plans to make grants available for fellowships in those labs in coming summers.

Also, local programs will be expanded, he said, including a student employment program, which will allow high school students to receive practical experience in the federal labs, either on a volunteer or work-study basis. "If the kids can get early experiences in the labs, they'll be hooked," said Goodwin.

"I thought it took patience to be a teacher; it takes a whole lot of patience to be a researcher," said Jacqueline Alton during remarks at a ceremony marking the end of the program last week. "My eyes have been opened to what goes on here."