Portledge students studying experimental biology or taking the scientific research elective have the unique opportunity to work with the Cold Spring Harbor (CSH) DNA Lab. The skills developed in these courses are hands-on and provide college preparatory-level experience.
Students in these courses are participating in DNA barcoding labs with CSH.
DNA barcoding aims to use the information of one or a few gene regions to identify all species of life. Fortunately for our students, the Portledge campus is home to an impressive landscape of trees, wildlife, flowers, and several other organisms, providing plenty of options for this type of project. Our surroundings have become the basis for experimental biology and the science research elective for 9th- and 11th-grade students.
In groups of 2–4, students work together to choose species from a local habitat and determine a question to guide their research. For example, one group studies mosquitos and uses DNA barcode technology to look at pesticide treatments that affect biodiversity in different areas. Junior student Anna Bloch explains, “I am working with Daniel Galvin Gusmano, Aleena Abdelhady, and Ava Orellana, and we barcoded mosquito DNA from specimens collected in Queens and Portledge. Queens has a lot of pesticides, and since Portledge is on a nature preserve, it is assumed to have few. We are looking at the types of mosquitoes we find through barcoding to determine the effectiveness of pesticides based on whether the types of mosquitoes we find are typically disease carriers. The DNA center has been a really great resource since it is so close by.”
This process is very collaborative, and our students must agree on their topics before moving forward. “It’s a lot of team building,” says Carlyn Chiu, ‘85, the science teacher for these courses. “I think it's a great opportunity for the students. The exposure and the opportunity to do real research and science, not just scripted labs,” Mrs. Chiu goes on to say. “They are looking at ecosystems and the genetics–it’s such a range. I hope it will inspire them to continue in science research.”
After students collect their samples and identify possible organisms through resources at Portledge, they head to the CSH DNA Lab for DNA isolation and amplification. Mrs. Chiu describes the process at the Lab: "At CSH Learning Center, they grind the samples and essentially copy a particular sequence of the DNA to release the DNA from the organism's nucleus. The next step is PCR, in which students amplify a particular area of the genome. Students then do a gel electrophoresis to examine whether they successfully isolated and amplified the DNA. If successful, it gets sent to a lab in New Jersey for sequencing. When they return, we use bioinformatics to examine the sequence, and then we use a database to compare to all known organisms, analyze the genus of the species, and find any mutations unique to the organisms being studied. In past years, we have identified two species with novel sequences and an invasive species.
Students developed research posters and presented their findings to the Portledge community at the 2nd Annual Science Symposium in April. In early June, students also presented their work to a wider audience of researchers at CSH labs.
“One of the biggest takeaways that I had with this project was learning how different techniques used by scientists can be used in the real world,” 9th-grade student Rowan Shenoy said. “Before this project, I was only introduced to step-by-step lab experiments and structured lab reports as a way to convey findings.”
Students are challenged to apply key concepts of biology and scientific research techniques while going beyond the workload of a normal high school science class. The DNA barcoding work provides a better understanding of the science needed to succeed in modern-day laboratory setting or environment. Portledge students benefit from our partnership with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories which provides opportunities to expand their knowledge. “Personally, I loved working with the Cold Spring Harbor DNA Learning Center,” Rowan explained. “I was presented with an opportunity that isn't typically given to students at other schools or even within Portledge. This project allowed me to learn more about the science going on in the community around me.”