Oct 21, 2015

12 HHS Students Experience Genetic Workshop at University of Texas in Austin

Lilibeth Nunez and Ilynne Marquez

HHS students I’Lynne Marquez, left, and Lilibeth Nuñez at work

in a genetics lab at the University of Texas in Austin.

12 HHS Students Experience Genetic Workshop at University of Texas in Austin

By Rob O’Connor

Twelve Hart High School students had the privilege of participating in a unique experience at the University of Texas in Austin this month. HHS science teacher Robert O’Connor worked side-by-side with UT’s Rick Smith in order to expose Hart High School students to a highly specialized genetics procedure that provided students with hands on experience in a genetics laboratory. Smith and O’Connor further focused the trip on guiding students along pathways to and through college.

Genetics: Rick Smith’s research at the University of Texas is centered on the extraction of ancient human DNA and deciphering what those genes may indicate about ancient people. Rick Smith petitioned Dr. Deborah Bolnick for the use of her Gene lab and she graciously allowed our students to come. HHS students extracted their own mitochondrial DNA from saliva. The extraction involved many steps and the use of specialized tools and technologies, such as  a micropipette, a vortexer and a microcentrifuge. Once the DNA was extracted and cleaned up, samples were inspected with a spectrophotometer to ensure that DNA was present. At this point, the students had a few drops of clear fluid containing their DNA.  In order to proceed, millions and millions of copies were needed. DNA was placed in a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) device, which is a “DNA photocopier.” After two hours of copying, students took a small sample of the reproduced DNA and ran it through a process called Gel Electrophoresis.  This gel test determined that the PCR did its job and that there were indeed millions of copies of DNA present for each student. DNA samples were then sent off for Sanger Sequencing (a 24-hour process) on a $100,000 sequencer housed at UT. The DNA needed to be sequenced in order to determine how each student’s genetic code matches with other human codes from around the world.  Student matches indicated probabilities of ancestral roots from large geographic regions, such as  North America, South America, Southeast Asia, Europe and  Africa.

University Tour: The second day of our trip was filled with an eight-mile overview of UT. HHS students had a fast paced walking tour of the campus where they saw one of 16 libraries, Jester Dormitory (which houses about 3,000 residents), the stadium, the clock tower, and many other buildings in between. Specialized tours were arranged in the colleges of Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. HHS students were able to see classrooms, study areas, and research labs for artificial intelligence and robotics.  Within the robotics lab, Dr. Luis Sentis shared designs which have been funded by NASA and other designs for which they are currently seeking funding.

Admissions & First Generation Panel: At the end of our second day on campus, our students met with three people regarding admissions.  These presenters focused  on the struggles and difficulties that our students will face as they enter college.  First-generation minority students, with limited funding for college, face an almost impossible task of going to and finishing college. Our kids heard about study help, financial help, career choice guidance and community support.  Several myths about college were dispelled and students were challenged to dream big and make an investment in themselves. The following morning, a panel of five Hispanic, first-generation college students, ranging from sophomore to senior status, met with our students. Each of the panelists plans to move on to higher education in engineering, education or law. Our HHS students heard stories of personal sacrifice, determination and dedication.  The panelists challenged our students’ way of thinking about college and described how hard work and dedication can lead to a bright future.