Researching Microscopic Cells & Proteins

(from The Calhoun Chronicle, winter 2003)

“High School biology labs can rely too much on a cookbook approach to science,” says teacher Francesco Filiaci. So Calhoun’s Biology teacher took the flask by its neck, and looked to the Rockefeller Institute’s Science Outreach Program for inspiration. “I hoped the program would help me come up with exciting new lab ideas that would enhance the curriculum,” he says. The rest is science history: Francesco was one of only 12 high school teachers from around the world accepted into Rockefeller’s highly prestigious program. With a small stipend from the Institute, Francesco was able to devote his summer to the five-week program, working side-by-side with Institute scientists, fellow high school teachers and 50 high school students. In addition to the lab research, Francesco and his colleagues participated in the STRAW (Scientific Reading and Writing) program, which facilitated discussions on how to learn effective scientific communication skills in the classroom and how to read scientific journals.

The results of Francesco’s quest were immediate. Since early fall, this year's Advanced Biology students have been conducting yeast experiments that duplicate studies on cells and proteins that are currently in progress at the Rockefeller Institute laboratory of Professor Sanford Simon. Calhoun's satellite lab program was set in motion thanks to an additional $2,000 grant from the Institute, awarded to Francesco on the basis of his summer work and his curriculum proposal. An added bonus -- Collin Thomas, a post-doctoral scientist and Francesco’s mentor during the summer program, agreed to make monthly visits to the Calhoun lab to work with the students. “My conversations with Francesco have been invaluable to my thinking about pedagogy," says Collin, who was been considering going into teaching himself.

The Experiment

At the Rockefeller Institute, Francesco worked on a protein called the translocon, Sec 61, which is found in yeast. It is similar to a protein found in humans. During the course of the summer, Francesco and Collin Thomas created a series of experiments looking at the evolutionary adaptations of this protein under specific environmental conditions. These experiments helped lay the groundwork for the work and mini-research center created in the Calhoun Biology Lab.

In bringing Rockefeller research to the Advanced Placement Calhoun students, it was necessary to first teach the students how to grow and count yeast in petri dishes. Francesco used the $2,000 grant from the Rockefeller Institute to purchase a small incubator to house the yeast and micro pipettes-- the primary tool used by molecular cellular biologists. With these sophisticated instruments, the students learned about serial dilutions, and the nuts and bolts of how to calculate the number of yeast per milliliter of solution. Getting the right dilution of yeast or colonies on a plate was necessary so that an accurate count -- or population size -- could be made.

The first experiment for the students was one involving Ultra Violet light and two different strains of yeast that produce two different pigments, one white and one red. “The experiment had never been done before,” notes Francesco, who explains that the experiment “is an investigation into looking at UV protection as an evolutionary benefit, which may be gained by having less common red pigment.” Concurrent with their lab work, the students studied the data behind the hypothesis, and were encouraged to come up with duplicate experiments. “We will expand on this attempt at science as a purely inquiry-based approach,” adds Francesco, who hopes to spread his enthusiasm to future biologists.

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