Students at Higley's Williams Field High sequence palo verde tree gene - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Students at Higley's Williams Field High sequence palo verde tree gene

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Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 12:00 pm

Christopher Brock and his nine students in the "honors biotechnology 2" career and technical education class at Williams Field High School in Gilbert this school year have achieved a feat normally associated with professional researchers and scientists.

They have sequenced a gene.

Using a series of scientific techniques and special lab equipment to break down the genetic makeup of the Mexican Palo Verde tree, students in Brock’s class were able to separate, or “isolate,” a gene that helps organisms burn sugar for energy – a process known as “glycolysis.” Humans, fish, plants and other organisms use glycolysis in metabolizing food, so this gene is universal.

Brock’s students also developed a map of the gene’s makeup which, once published, could enable scientists to make further advancements in research of diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

Now, Brock is compiling the results of the students’ research to submit them to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for publication. Publication is an accomplishment the students can tout on their resume, but most importantly, publication provides other scientists around the world with information they need to find new therapies and potential cures for diseases.

Brock said the students themselves chose the Palo Verde tree for their experiment.

“We wanted to try a plant that had not been sequenced before for that gene,” he said.

Throughout the fall semester, the nine students learned how to extract the DNA – the genetic makeup of the plant - and break down its genes, step by step. The scientific process for isolating a gene involves using a simple household-type tool, such as a mortar and pestle, as well as complex lab machines such as a thermal cycler, to break up DNA chain in which the gene appears.

The students, nearly all of them seniors, have different reasons for taking the biotechnology courses offered through Higley Unified School District's career and technical education program at Williams Field High.

“I want to be a biology teacher,” said Jenelle Gooder, a senior.

“I want to be a police officer and be a detective,” said Maryah Williamson, also a senior. “I love doing stuff like this.”

Biotechnology interests Ian Pennington, the only junior in the honors’ course. “The field itself is really fascinating to me because it’s always going to be there. There will always be a need for this,” Ian said.

In addition to Jenelle, Maryah and Ian, the other students in Brock’s class who helped sequence the gene were Stephanie Cochran, Brooke Fletcher, Steven Nazi, Celina Ramos, Londonn Rogers, and Charles Starr.

Through the career and technical education honors’ biotechnology courses at Williams Field High, Brock and his students are participating in one of the fastest growing areas of study and research in the world. While research is on the rise, so is the worldwide need for more researchers, medical professionals and scientists with experience in biotechnology, microbiology, genetics and other related areas.

Biotechnology has greatly impacted the world, Brock noted. It has enabled farmers to reduce the use of chemicals on crops, helping to reduce pollution in the environment. It also is providing scientists with a potential new pathway toward “personalized medicine,” in which doctors could, based on the genetic makeup of a disease and the DNA of a patient, develop treatments specially tailored to fit each individual patient.

Brock said the biotechnology honors’ courses help students take a greater interest in biotechnology, genetics and other related sciences, which could one day help companies, universities and organizations address the shortages of professionals in those fields.

In addition, the students are receiving college-level experiences. The experiments they conduct are as difficult and complex as those carried out by college students and research assistants.

“The earlier you get kids experienced in doing authentic experiments, the better off they’ll be in their college studies, and the better off we’ll be for our future,” Brock said. “These students are tomorrow’s scientists.”

An alumna of the biotechnology honors’ courses, Courtney Moore, said she found the coursework gave her a competitive edge over other students in the fall when she began studying biochemistry at the University of Arizona and landed a job in a research lab.

“Mr. Brock’s biotechnology classes gave me the skills that set me apart from other candidates who had applied for the job. In fact, in my lab work, I use many of the same scientific techniques I had learned in Mr. Brock's program.”

Moore said Mr. Brock and the biotechnology courses at Williams Field High prepared her to pursue a biochemistry degree and later, a medical doctorate so she can become a trauma surgeon or medical researcher.

Moore said she would recommend the honors’ biotechnology courses to students who are considering a science-related career. “The courses make you a competitive candidate in the job market and prepare you for college science courses,” she said.

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