Biotech Students Tackle Research Projects with Electrophoresis

"Our findings were very conclusive," began Jordan '20 and Elijah '20. "We found that [the genes of] patients with Multiple Sclerosis reacted very differently to the restriction enzymes than [the genes of] patients without MS." 

In Gann Academy's Advanced Biotech class, students take on the role of researcher and scientist. "This is often the first time that students have a chance to conduct longer-term research," said Science Department Chair Sarah DuBeau-Farley. "While the DNA samples they are using aren't human, they are using real DNA and doing real lab work. One of the big ideas this course tries to convey is that while Biotechnology sounds complicated and intimidating, the lab techniques are something even students like them can approach and use to answer powerful, authentic questions."

Jordan and Elijah's presentation was one of eight which relied on the use of restriction enzymes and gel electrophoresis to prove or disprove various research scenarios. Other groups investigated such topics as: identifying samples of Rhino horn to help focus anti-poaching efforts, testing the effectiveness of pretreatment regimes on the success of bone marrow transplants, and reuniting victims of war atrocities in South America with their families. In each scenario, a restriction enzyme was used to cut DNA from different samples in the same place. Then students compared the DNA strands by running them through electrophoresis, which uses electromotive force to move particles through a gel field.

After their technical research was completed, Jordan and Elijah still faced the challenge of interpreting and presenting their research in such a way that could be understood by a general audience. Jenna ’20, another student in the course, explained that "Having to present to a mixed audience made me think through my preparation in a different way. I practiced with others in my class and my family in order to see the different levels of questions I might get. Then I had to think about how to explain these complex ideas in a simple understandable way. That is really hard to do."

As they began to think deeper about their presentation, new questions arose. "We were curious about whether or not methylation [of the genes linked to MS] is consistent among all people if they behaved in equally unhealthy ways, or if perhaps it was dependent on genetic predispositions as well as environmental factors," said Jordan and Elijah.

These probing questions are an intended consequence of such research. "When students get to choose their own project, it puts them in the role of expert," stated DuBeau-Farley. "They have to master the details of the work because no one else knows what they did! This often motivates them to dig into the work in a different way than they would for a test."
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