SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Through a new honor’s science course, a select group of South Plainfield High School (SPHS) students can add published researchers to their list of academic accomplishments.

Currently, 22 students are enrolled in Kathleen Benton’s A.M. Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics class. Offered as a club last year, the science program was turned into a 7 a.m. honors class for sophomores, juniors, and seniors in September 2017.

“When we operated as a club, we did not have the time or continuity required to begin, continue, and end lab experiments efficiently. [Also], when it was ‘a choice after school, students were often conflicted with choosing between practices for sports or other club meetings,” said Benton, “In order for the students to attain a deep understanding so that they can apply these concepts to higher level learning - or maybe even hopefully their own research someday - we need to meet everyday. Now we have an allotted time to focus completely on the task at hand.”

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Supported by the Waksman Student Scholars Program (WSSP) at Rutgers University, the class is designed to provide SPHS students the opportunity to conduct an authentic research project in molecular biology and bioinformatics and publish their findings. According to the organization’s website (https://wssp.rutgers.edu)), the belief is that ‘by actually doing science, students gain an understanding of how science operates and are encouraged to continue their education and careers in a science discipline.’

“This class is a combo of chemistry and biology,” said SPHS student Kenny Williams. “It is practical and has widened my understanding of science like no other class.” 

WSSP is a year-long program that begins with summer institutes for high school science teachers and one or two of their students. Last summer, SPHS sophomore Aleks Slicner dedicated three weeks of his summer vacation to the program, spending full days at Rutgers where he attended lectures with guest speakers, conducted experiements, and participated in a poster symposium where other professors came to see the ‘discovers’ and question the findings.

“My path originated last summer at the university when I was armed with in-depth knowledge of the program, which let me assume a leadership position and help guide the class through struggles they might encounter in their growth process,” said Aleks Slicner.

Come the fall, the program then continues at the high school where each year-long WSSP research project explores basic concepts and relevant themes in molecular biology, bioinformatics, and computational biology using the resources found on the Internet. According to Benton, through the class, students acquire a background in genetic engineering and gain the skills used in college level - and beyond - through participation in an authentic research project.

For the 2017-2018 WSSP research project, the focus is on the DNA sequence analysis of genes from Landoltia punctata– a.k.a. the duckweed plant – and how these genes compare to those found in other species. A plant that grows in fresh water, duckweed, according to the WSSP website, ‘is of interest to the scientific community because of its use in bioremediation, and its potential use as a biofuel.’

“It is a great candidate for cleaning the environment and making a sustainable fuel source,” said Benton.

To start their research, students receive a plate of bacteria colonies that contain plasmids – a genetic structure in a cell that can replicate independently of the chromosomes – that have DNA inserts and, after carefully choosing a colony, grow bacteria cultures overnight and then isolate their DNA.

The students, said Benton, then analyze the size of their DNA using both polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – a technique used in molecular biology to amplify a single copy or a few copies of a segment of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence –and restriction digest – the process of cutting DNA molecules into smaller pieces with special enzymes. Once certain that their DNA is larger than 300 base pairs, they sequence it (determine the order of the nucleotide bases) and determine the protein that it codes for using bioinformatics.

According to Benton, the students must sequence every DNA letter in the plant, something that’s never been done before. “This is a difficult task because there is no ‘known’ to compare it to,” she said, adding, “Their knowledge of DNA and proteins are tied to evolution, personalized medicine, and the advancement of genetic engineering.”

Once determined, SPHS students then post their findings to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website. Not only does this make the high school students published scientists, it also means that anyone who uses a SPHS student’s findings while researching duckweed, at any point in time, would reference that student’s work and credit them.

“Any other scientist around the world that accesses and uses this information has to list the student as a contributor to their published work,” said Benton, adding, “Since Duckweed has the potential to be used as an alternative to fossil fuels and is a strong candidate for bioremediation it will likely be studied by other scientists around the world. It is a true contribution to the world of science.”

In addition to bragging rights as published scientists, Benton said students in her molecular biology and bioinformatics class are also garnering valuable experience and a ‘competitive edge that sets them apart from all other potential college students.’

“Usually a student of science applies to work/study in a professor's/mentor's lab during their senior year. However, after taking this class, the students are prepared as incoming freshman to compete for positions in labs right away,” said Benton, adding, “Professors scoop them up immediately because they not only have the skills necessary to efficiently perform research, but they can ‘teach’ other students the skills necessary to work in a lab.’

“This class is by far the most interesting class I’ve ever taken and, if I could, I would take it again! I love the real life research experience and the advantage I now have in competitive research programs,” said SPHS junior Ezinne Ibeku.

“I have learned that there is a clear connection between all organisms from plants to animals and I still can’t believe that we share so many similarities, yet I have seen it with my own eyes,” said fellow junior Bernice Ndegwa.

SPHS senior Akachukwu Uba added, “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to apply my knowledge in biology to gain research skills that I can use in college. I appreciate Principal Spring for promoting this amazing hands on experience.”

This summer, current junior Emily Resal will attend the summer WSSP program at Rutgers and lead the class in the fall.

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