“Ultimately about discovery”: High school students experience hands-on biology research

Photo of Seung Kim and former student Emma Herold (Steve Fisch)

Photo of Seung Kim and former student Emma Herold (Steve Fisch)

In high school, most science classes involve students reading a textbook and doing experiments with known answers. Not Bio 470: Biology Research — an experimental molecular genetics biology course developed in partnership with Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Seung Kim, MD, PhD, a professor of developmental biology at Stanford.

Kim was inspired to develop this unique high school biology class several years ago after visiting Exeter, his alma mater. He explained in an interview:

“I became aware that they were teaching science in a way very similar to how I’d learned it, which gave me pause as a practicing scientist because it didn’t reflect how science is really done. When we learn things in school, there should be no distance between us and the primary material. When you learn to play baseball or music, you don’t just read about it in textbooks. Instead, you play and try to mimic what professionals do.”

As a result, two Exeter instructors, Anne Rankin and Townley Chisholm, and a few of their students came to Kim’s research laboratory at Stanford the following summer to learn basic techniques for breeding and genetically manipulating fruit flies. Based on this training, the team launched an 11-week biology research course with 12 upper level students per year. The instructors teach the course at Exeter each spring, but both the teachers and students are in regular contact with Kim and his colleague, Lutz Kockel, PhD.

Drosophila, or common fruit flies, are an important model organism widely used in thousands of bioscience laboratories around the world, because these fast-breeding insects share much of our genetic heritage – fruit flies have 75 percent of genes that cause diseases in humans.

In class, students delve into fly genetics, molecular biology and embryology to generate and characterize new fruit fly strains. Kim explained their research:

“People have developed ways to turn genes on or off in fruit flies, using genetic tools that exploit elements from yeast gene control factors; there are whole libraries of these yeast-based genetically-modified fruit flies stocked around the world. But you need more than one independent system, so you can study complicated things like how cells talk to each other or how they interact in time during development. The research goal of our class was to generate a whole new set of genetically-modified fruit fly stock that used bacteria instead of yeast — creating a resource for the scientific community to perform their own research.”

If they succeed, great. But success isn’t guaranteed.

“The students, instructors and researchers don’t know what the outcome will be of their work, so it creates the actual emotions, effort and experience of being a scientist. The goal is to give young people a deeper understanding of what science is, which is ultimately about discovery,” Kim said.

The model worked well for Maddie Logan, an Exeter alumnus who is now a premed undergraduate at Yale University. She called it an incredible experience: “Biology 470 was very different from other classes in that it was 90 percent lab work. Every day we’d come into class, check in with the theory behind what we were doing that day, and then go to the lab benches to do our research. I learned that things in the lab only occasionally go as planned, and a real scientist has to be able to figure out what went wrong and how to correct it for next time.”

After taking Bio 470, a few students like Logan come to Stanford each summer to continue the research in Kim’s lab. “The whole strategy was to not worry about finishing anything in 11 weeks,” said Kim. “Over the last four years, students have accrued reliable data that we’ve now put together into a unique paper.”

Their paper has just been published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics— a major milestone for the project. According to the manuscript’s peer reviews, the students have produced a novel collection of fruit fly lines that will be “very useful to the scientific community to study diverse biological questions.”

Starting this fall, Kim and Lutz are expanding their genetics educational program to include Commack High School, a public school in Long Island, New York. They are also hoping to create a similar biology research course in a “high-needs” high school in the future.

For Kim, the project is a personal passion. “The thing that gives me the most joy is to see students’ faces light up when they really understand and really engage in the scientific process,” Kim said. “I’m trying to get people to see the beauty in science.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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