High-schoolers get close-up of cutting-edge science in action | AspenTimes.com

High-schoolers get close-up of cutting-edge science in action

Naomi Havlen

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times Aspen High junior Michael Holmes, right, 16, of Aspen watches Bob Wheeler prepare a sample of genetic material from cat food for testing during the Genomic Biology and Bioinformation genomics course Friday morning August 19, 2005. The college-level course held at Aspen High School is designed to teach students about genetics and how to differentiate from real or genetically enhanced foods.

Is an imitation bacon bit, straight out of a bottle of Bacos, made with genetically modified foods?Students who participated in a camp on DNA and genomics from the Aspen Science Center got to test that kind of thing and more this week. Twenty students from the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond learned cutting-edge science at the week’s camp, doing hands-on lab work with Dave Micklos, the head of the DNA learning center for the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York.”One of the major reasons I took the class was to be exposed to [a subject] that’s not available at a high school level without having to make it my major for college,” said Brooke Sheffer, 17, who will be a senior next year at Aspen High School. “We did a lot of really cool testing, like looking at different foods to see if it was genetically modified.”Sheffer was surprised to find that corn chips labeled “organic” actually included some genetically modified corn. The class also checked out Doritos, which of course were chock-full of genetically modified products.

This is cutting-edge science, notes Kevin Ward, co-founder of the Aspen Science Center.”For me, the whole purpose is to enrich the science offerings in the Roaring Fork Valley – these kids were doing stuff that most colleges even aren’t doing,” he said. “It’s really kind of the frontier of science, I just hope the kids realize how close to the cutting edge of science this was.”Justin Faurer, who will also be a senior this year at Aspen High School, knows that.”I took the class because I thought it would be an interesting way to learn more about the human genome and the ever-expanding new field of genetics,” he said. “It was college-level and grad-level work that I could do as a high school student in my own hometown.”

Faurer enjoyed a lab in which he got DNA from his own dog at home, a Labradoodle named Camden. He opened Camden’s mouth and rubbed a brush against the insides of her cheeks to get some cells. The class then separated out their dogs’ DNA to see if they were susceptible to a popular form of heart worm medication that can be fatal to some dogs with specific genes. Luckily, none of the students’ dogs could be affected by the medication.Students also swished a solution in their mouths to collect some of their own cells, which were sent away to Cold Spring Harbor Biological Lab to have their mitochondrial DNA sequenced.Through the experiments, Kevin Ward discovered he was one of three students in the class genetically predisposed not to taste bitterness.”I thought, ‘I have great taste, that’s not possible,'” Ward joked. “But I put a [bitter-flavored] paper strip in my mouth and tasted nothing. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it’s just kind of cool when it happens.”

“It was such an opportunity for the students, with very hands-on work and computer work, too, looking at their own DNA,” said Karen Jaworski, a teacher at Aspen High who also worked as an assistant teacher for the week’s camp.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com