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Going the Extra Mile for Molecular Genetics

May 6, 2016

By Genny Beckman Moriarty

It is the end of a fat block, G format, on a Thursday afternoon during winter term. The students in Science Instructor Anne Rankin’s Molecular Genetics course have been hustling to get their DNA sequencing reactions bagged up and ready to submit to the lab for testing. The same lab had unfortunately mishandled an earlier batch of samples, and the students are now in a race against time. They will need the results quickly in order to get through the next phase of their research project before the end of the term.

G format is over at 5 p.m. but at 5:25 p.m., the students are still at their stations, pipettes in hand. By 5:28  p.m., they have bagged up the last of the samples. They have two minutes remaining to get the samples to a FedEx dropbox if they want to wrap up their research before spring break, and Rankin ’92 is getting ready to dash across town in her car. Suddenly, Mahesh Kumar ’17 shouts out, ”Ms. Rankin, I can run there faster than you can drive!”

Grabbing the FedEx package out of his teacher’s hands, Kumar ”[takes] off in a dead run across campus and makes it with seconds to spare, waving the driver down as he’s leaving the lot,” recalls Rankin. She chuckles as she relates his heroic feat and offers up a possible headline: ”Student runs the extra mile for Bio 372!” That kind of enthusiasm is something she’s witnessed throughout the term. ”The kids are fired up,” she says. ”They are super invested in what they’re doing.”

Exactly what they were doing and why they were so fired up is a story that leads back to Rankin and her fellow science instructor, Erik Janicki. ”Erik and I have worked together for a number of years and always enjoy talking about our teaching,” says Rankin. Those conversations led them to join forces in creating a Harkness experience that would go beyond the confines of the classroom table into the realm of real-world scientific inquiry and collaboration.

”I think our upper level students should be put in the positions of being scientists,” says Janicki. He and Rankin asked students in three different sections of Molecular Genetics to work together throughout the winter term to design and carry out their own research project. ”We knew that having three formats collaborating together would generate a much larger data set, [providing] students with a more robust experience when it came time to analyze the data and draw sound scientific conclusions,” Janicki says.

To begin their research, students collected soil samples from three geographically distinct locations in the town of Exeter, including an organic blueberry farm, a hemlock and beech forest, and an organic home garden. Next, they cultivated colonies of bacteria and sequenced a particular gene used for DNA barcoding.

”Using DNA barcoding techniques to discover the identity of the soil microbes allowed students to assess the microbial richness and diversity of the soil,” explains Janicki. Once they had analyzed the results in their individual classes, they teamed up with the other sections to write and submit a research paper, titled ”Bacterial Composition of Soil Samples in Southern New Hampshire,” to the Journal of Emerging Investigators — a peer-reviewed journal for middle school and high school science students — for feedback and possible publication.

Janicki had attempted a similar research project with another class last year, but those students had run out of time before they had a chance to analyze the data or generate a paper. The success of the project in winter term was a testament to teamwork — on the part of the teachers as well as the students. ”Our work in Molecular Genetics took an enormous amount of conversation, coordination and trust and it only worked because of our strong personal relationship,” Rankin says.

While their combined efforts helped students make it to the finish line this time around, the process didn’t always go smoothly: They lost samples due to human error and some of the gels failed to run. But students agree the mishaps were part of the education. ”The biggest benefit was how much we messed up. It made us think critically about what we wanted to accomplish,” says Rohit Rajiv ’16.

Wrestling with uncertainty proved to be another blessing in disguise. ”With teacher-designed labs, the results are expected,” says Kaitlyn Kang ’17. With this project, however, it was new territory, even for the instructors. More than once, the young scientists were surprised by their results and forced to shift gears. That led to some moments of panic, but it also created the opportunity for students to own their learning in a way that even the typical Harkness classroom can’t provide.

”Sometimes, there was no answer,” says Rebecca Ju ’16. ”That was frustrating, but we had the opportunity to fight through the frustration, and I think we learned a lot more. I liked how we went from A to B to C to D and that our answers and end-products were based on our discussions,” she adds.

Another big hurdle was figuring out how to find consensus among 30 different students during the writing process. Each class had a slightly different approach to their analyses, Rankin explains. ”They were using the same data, but they had different interpretations based on how the individual classroom discussions went,” she says. It wasn’t easy, but after many deliberations and false starts (and the help of a shared Google Doc), they figured out how to incorporate their different approaches into one paper.

Dr. Kyuson Yun, a scientist who studies brain cancer stem cells at the Jackson Laboratory’s Yun Lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, visited classes to offer feedback on the paper before it was submitted to the journal. Yun, who is the mother of Thomas Gallup ’16, a student in Rankin’s G format, was joined by Peter Frank, a dissertation fellow at PEA. Although it wasn’t always easy to receive, students agreed the reviewers’ feedback was helpful. The review session also marked the first time many of the students had been able to read the paper all the way through, and they realized they would have benefited from better communication: ”While writing the paper was an extremely collaborative process within each class,” says Rajiv, ”upon reviewing [it], we found sections that had the same information contributed by each of the three formats.”

Learning how the publication process works was eye-opening for everyone. As of this writing, their paper has passed through the first review at the Journal of Emerging Investigators and made it into the hands of individual readers for specific feedback. Regardless of whether or not it is accepted for publication, students agree that the process was a valuable one. ”Creating a paper based [on] our work and submitting to a journal was a very fulfilling way to end the term, and it’s definitely something I can be proud of,” Gallup says.

”Normally, in a lab class, you might talk about the challenges scientists face, but you don’t see them,” adds Andrew Tuchler ’16. ”Here, we realized how much those obstacles can affect deadlines and the end results. … I have a much better idea now of what science is really like.”