Turlock High’s Biotech Day opens students’ eyes

02/12/2014 12:00 AM

02/11/2014 1:36 PM

Transforming bacteria to glow, purifying DNA samples to run through gels, and amplifying small DNA fragments thousands of times. Sound like activities from a high-tech institute of groundbreaking research? For a special group of Turlock High students, it was just another day in their high school lab.

On Jan. 28, the 34 students of the advanced placement biology class celebrated annual Biotech Day with eight hours’ worth of labs and discussion about one particularly weighty topic: biotechnology. The teen scientists-in-training took their weeks of studying the tools and tricks of the trade and applied that knowledge in a real-world context to truly experience all that biotechnology has to offer.

Beakers and bacterial cultures, DNA primers and pipettes decorated rows of lab tables as the students got to work at 6:45 a.m., using molecular “scissors” called restriction enzymes to slice DNA samples at specific points. What followed was a combination of loading the DNA samples into gels to separate the samples by size, incubating test tubes of material in warm water, and heat-shocking bacteria to prepare them for DNA uptake – all representative of the riveting whirlwind of energy and activity that is so characteristic of science.

For junior Makenzie Salyer, one highlight of Biotech Day was conducting a DNA fingerprint analysis. “Basically, we took samples of DNA from four ‘suspects’ of a pretend crime,” she said. “We used the process of gel electrophoresis to compare their DNA samples to the DNA sample from the ‘crime scene.’ In that way, we could figure out which of the four suspects in question was actually present at the crime scene.”

Many of the students appreciated how notably different the activities and projects were from anything else they had encountered in their high school experience. Senior Kaylie Lemon said, “I think this is good preparation for when we go to college and do more of these kinds of in-depth, complex labs.”

Biotech Day also featured an appearance by California State University, Stanislaus, biology professor Jim Youngblom, who led a discussion on direct-to-consumer genetic testing offered by companies such as 23andMe. Youngblom emphasized that, given the anticipated rise in the prevalence and applicability of these tests, they are something more young people need to be cognizant of.

Turlock High biology teacher Sonja Raynes, the chief orchestrator of Biotech Day, said, “I really enjoy putting this on every year. I think it’s very crucial to deliver this type of knowledge and experience to my students. Biotechnology is where the biology world is headed, so I don’t think I would be fulfilling my duties as a teacher without exposing them to this very important and potent field.”

No doubt, biotechnology is permeating our world more and more, but a good grasp of its definition still remains somewhat elusive to much of the public. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, “biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”

As of late, the field itself has been placed under a new spotlight due to its medical promise and burgeoning career opportunities. For the students of Turlock High’s AP biology class, getting a taste of those features starts now.

Junior Mirella Lopez said, “Thanks to Biotech Day, I am now inspired to consider a career in biotechnology. I really liked how professional we could be, undertaking the labs like real scientists.”

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