Dr. Tim Herman was a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin when he was introduced to 3D printing at a research meeting in 1998. He had been using something called Byron's Bender to shape wire into models of proteins, but during the conference he met a gentleman with a 3D printed model of an alpha helix.
"It was very hard to make accurate models of proteins, so when I became aware of rapid prototyping, or 3D printing as it has since come to be known, it seemed like the better technology," Herman said.
Returning to Milwaukee, Herman found enthusiastic collaborators at the Milwaukee School of Engineering's Rapid Prototyping Center. Together, they created a physical model of the green fluorescent protein.
Herman took the model to a research conference in San Diego and was overwhelmed by how well it was received among his colleagues, who had expressed difficulties in trying to teach their students about objects too small to see.
"I was so intrigued with the technology that I left my position at the Medical College of Wisconsin and opened the center," Herman said.
That would be the Center for BioMolecular Modeling in Milwaukee.
The nonprofit center is funded with grants from the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical institute.
It develops 3D printed models of molecular structures for use in the classroom. Working with researchers to develop molecular stories and with educators to create active learning tools, the center invites students on an exploration of the molecular world.
"These materials aren't intended to introduce the students to 3D printing, though it certainly does that," Herman said. "These materials are intended to help students construct an understanding of this otherwise abstract, invisible world."
Most of the center's work is done in several programs in which teachers come into the center for about a week in the summer to learn about the materials and how they work. The crown jewel in the center's program repertoire may be the Students Modeling a Research Topic (SMART) program. Teachers in the SMART program spend a week learning the curriculum and using the technology, then take it back to their students.
Teams of five to 20 students use the software to model a sample protein during the school year. Once the teams have proven that they know how to use the software, the center matches them with a local research lab. The SMART team then visits the lab, learns about the research being done there, and then they design and build a physical model of the protein that is central to the lab's work. The model is designed with features that make it useful in describing the research project.
"It's just a wonderful interaction, and the kids bring resources to the researchers that they wouldn't otherwise have access to," Herman said.
The teams do travel to the center during the year for more training as well. There are about 20 SMART teams in the Milwaukee area and 40 more across the country.
"Once a teacher gets started doing this, they tend to become lifetime SMART team teachers," Herman said. "Some teachers have been running SMART team programs in their schools for the past ten years."
The teams also put their work on display every year at the annual meeting of the Experimental Biology society, a consortium of biomolecular researchers. "The purpose is to introduce the kids to what we call the real world of science," Herman said.
Herman has even spun a for profit business, 3D Molecular Designs, off from the center. In fact, the business made the center possible because the first product the business offered was a customized version of the 3D modeling software called RP-RasMol, which the center uses.
"If it hadn't been for the business, the center wouldn't exist," Herman said.