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Student Forms Biotech Club to Create Opportunities for STEM Learning

This determined student pursued her interest in biotech exploration by creating her own after-school club. Using science project resources at Science Buddies, the club went on to sequence California native plants and contribute to GenBank!

Student carefully clips a sample of a plant from a local regional wilderness

As a junior at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, CA, Katherine was disappointed to discover that biotechnology was no longer being offered. Her AP biology class had sparked her interest, and she had been looking forward to furthering her biotech knowledge with a dedicated class.

With no class available, Katherine decided to put together her own learning environment. "I created the Biotech Club to give myself and others more biotech opportunities," she explains. It was an ambitious approach, and it wasn't easy. The process of getting a club officially set up and getting a teacher signed on as an advisor was time-consuming, but Katherine was determined. In its first year, the new club had about fifteen regular members.

Genetic Sequencing Native Plants

The Biotech Club's first project involved the genetic sequencing of native plants. Using the Investigate Native Plant Evolution with Chloroplast Sequencing project as an experimental framework, the club took a field trip to Sunol Regional Wilderness (Northern California) to collect native plant samples (the project calls for collecting three different plant specimens). In particular, they were looking for bluewitch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum).

Student holding sample of bluewitch nightshade cut for the science project

Students doing the biotech project outlined at Science Buddies can contribute new information to the scientific community by focusing on native plants that are less likely to have already been sequenced. Before starting, Katherine got advice from a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Our project's goal was to help with plant preservation, so we actively pursued a plant that hadn't been sequenced before to contribute something new," says Katherine. "To find such a plant, I talked to Dr. Bruce Baldwin who teaches and has research at UC Berkeley. He specializes in phylogenetic research of plants and is interested in conservation. I emailed him about our club's project, and he gave us advice on how to go about the project and recommended our plant, bluewitch nightshade."

Katherine and other club members gathered samples on their field trip and headed back to the school’s lab where they extract DNA from the plants and used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify the gene that contains rubisco (an enzyme involved in photosynthesis). They then used gel electrophoresis to visualize the PCR and sent one of their samples for sequencing.

Once they received the sequence back (in the form of a trace or chromatogram), they used the BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) from NCBI (the National Center for Biotechnology Information) to look for other plants with similar rubisco sequences. In this process, they discovered that their plant had not been sequenced before, so they were able (with Science Buddies' help) to submit their sequence to GenBank, the NIH genetic sequence database.

"When I got the results back, I was extremely excited," says Katherine. "I was happy that we could contribute to science even if it was only a small step. It felt as if the whole process of learning, organizing, and teaching had been worth it."

"This project has further pushed my interest in research, so I am pursuing colleges with strong research opportunities." Katherine, 12th grade

Exploring Now for a Future in STEM

"My interest in biotech stems from my love of genetics," says Katherine, now a senior. "I find it fascinating how molecules code who we are and are responsible for basically everything we do. In the future, I want to go into gene-editing and look in greater depth at how our DNA affects our health and how we can personalize medicine according to our DNA."

Katherine says she found Science Buddies when searching for a way to continue learning about biotechnology independently with her club. "After my school's biotech class was discontinued, I knew I wanted to continue learning about biotech. I thought I could do so through a project, so I looked online. This project gave me and my club members a lot of hands-on experience with biotechnology."

When Katherine first shared her story with us, she was a senior in high school, preparing to graduate, and planning to major in molecular biology or biochemistry. "This project has further pushed my interest in research, so I am pursuing colleges with strong research opportunities." (Katherine will be attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor starting this fall.)

Special thanks to Dr. Baysdorfer, a professor at California State University, East Bay, for generously sequencing PCR samples from students doing the Investigate Native Plant Evolution with Chloroplast Sequencing project at Science Buddies.

Share Your Science Buddies Story!

Have you used a science project, STEM activity, or Lesson Plan from Science Buddies in your class or program? We would love to hear your story! Email us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org and tell us how you use Science Buddies with students.

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