March 26, 2014

Molecular biology club makes Modesto students part of gene sequencing study

Most high school students eagerly await the sound of the bell signifying that their long day of school is drawing to a close; they can finally go home to give their aching brains a rest.

Most high school students eagerly await the sound of the bell signifying that their long day of school is drawing to a close; they can finally go home to give their aching brains a rest.

But on Wednesday afternoons, for a small group of dedicated students at Modesto High, the bell signifies something else: the chance to partake in an extremely advanced molecular biology program dedicated to sequencing new genes.

“It’s a real research project that these kids get to participate in,” says Jeff Austin, the biology teacher at Modesto High and the club’s director.

The Modesto High Molecular Biology Club already has sequenced more than 20 previously undiscovered genes in its three years on campus, offering local students an unparalleled opportunity for research experience.

Natella Baliaouri, a senior, explains what she has gained through the program:

“I’m learning a lot in research experience. It really offers a unique type of activity. We have other science clubs, like Science Olympiad, but that doesn’t really offer the type of experience we have here. We have a teacher telling us about DNA and the plasmids and the bacteria that we work with.”

The program, developed by Rutgers University and imported to the West Coast by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, uses complex lab procedures and computer databases to instruct students in advanced molecular biology. “It’s a series of wet labs, and then computational biology, so they get both sides of it, which is the real world,” Austin says.

The program also aids the community at large by empowering the students to discover new genes in a species of duck weed. “They use duck weed because it has lots of applications,” the teacher says. “It can be used for bioremediation, it can absorb heavy metals out of water, and it grows really quickly. … It could be used as a biofuel – that’s another possibility.

“By doing this work, by discovering the genes that are found in this species … other scientists are going to further the research in either bioremediation or biofuels. It’s beneficial for the whole scientific community.”

The sequenced “novel genes,” as the previously undiscovered genes are called, are verified through a complicated process before being published in a National Center for Biotechnology Information database.

Austin, who has taught at Modesto High for 26 years, was one of three California teachers selected by Lawrence Livermore Lab to initiate the program three years ago. Each summer since, he has joined the other original teachers and a Rutgers University professor in leading an intensive course at Lawrence Livermore to instruct other education professionals and students in how to bring the program to their own learning centers.

“We teach students and teachers this program in the hopes that they implement it at their schools and at their sites,” Austin says. “So we get to bring a couple of students every year, and this last year I was able to bring five of my students. … And those who are in the summer program come back to the high schools and become teachers here. So they help implement the program as mentors.”

“It’s been a lot of out-of-class and after-school-hours type of work,” says Modesto High principal Jason Manning. “Mr. Austin has taken the lead on the program and has been very impressive. I’ve been in the classroom a few times. It’s amazing what these 16- and 17-year-old students are doing with their teacher in conjunction with the Lawrence Livermore Lab.”

Austin talks over the friendly chatter of the students, instructing them to do something called a “PCR lab” and entreating them to “Grab your A’s and B’s!” His passion for instructing the students radiates throughout the room. He is not alone, however, in his enthusiasm for molecular biology. Each student in the room emphatically answered “yes” when asked if he or she hopes to pursue some type of scientific career. Baliaouri says, “I want to go into research. This is part of what I want to do.”

Jerod Femino, the club president and a senior, says that when he first went to the summer program at Lawrence Livermore, he didn’t expect to want to pursue a career in this field. “I started off not really knowing much about molecular biology, and it wasn’t really something I was too interested in, and then I went to the summer program, and I went in the club. … It was a lot of fun, and I also learned a lot. Now it’s something I want to do as a career.”

As Emily Davis, a senior in her second year with the club, explains, “This club has been a great experience to get that hands-on learning experience of taking our science interests outside of just the classroom setting in school, and to be able to go into greater depth after school.” Emily also wishes to pursue a career in research.

“It gives them a lot of skills that they can use, that kids usually don’t get until upper-degree college work,” Austin says. “And they get published, which is another really exciting part of the program. Year after year, we have kids who go to the summer program … and they come back and become mentors. The research that they’re doing is very difficult work, but these guys are able to take it on, and they’ve been doing a very good job.”

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