A Head Start for Tomorrow’s Scientists

Published March 7, 2011

On a recent Saturday morning, 68 area high school science students and seven teachers filed into Farber Hall in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The buzz of excitement and anticipation was palpable as they carefully transported and unpacked large poster boards, papers and notebooks filled with bioinformatics data they would present in a mini-symposium on gene annotation.

As the half-day session rolled into high gear, the students were immersed in a real-world experience that would be the envy of any aspiring young scientist: the opportunity to learn about advances in cutting-edge research from renowned scientists and to present findings from their own research.

Workforce Needs: Jobs Going Unfilled

“They had no idea that all these biotechnology-related careers existed and no idea how many places there are in the area that hire for these careers. They didn’t even know there was such a thing as bioinformatics.”
Lon Knappenberger, Science teacher,
Westfield High School

The event marked the culmination of a grant-funded program that was begun three years ago by a group of UB medical school professors whose aim is to spur high school students’ interest in biotechnology, a field where jobs are plenty in Western New York yet often go unfilled due to a dearth of qualified applicants.

The ambitious program, which currently involves six school districts in Western New York, is the first of its kind attempted on such a large scale in the country.

It is the brainchild of Paul Kostyniak, PhD, chair of UB’s Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences, Stephen Koury, PhD, and Rama Dey-Rao, PhD, assistant professors in the department.

Several years ago, Kostyniak served as a member of the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Investment Board, which brings together area business and academic leaders to strategize about how best to meet the workforce needs of our region in the decades ahead.

“A committee I sat on focused on three primary areas of concern for Western New York: medical technology, where the workforce is graying and we can’t get replacements for those who are retiring; biotechnology, which is where we’ve invested a lot of money toward our future as a region; and advanced manufacturing,” says Kostyniak.

Seeing that the first two issues clearly impacted on UB and its ability to attract quality students in the biomedical sciences, Kostyniak and his faculty worked together to plan and implement a program that would serve as an education and training pipeline for high school students who show an interest in science.

Kostyniak led efforts to write a grant in which his department eventually received U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) funding for their program from two New York State DOL grants awarded through Erie and Genesee counties.

Partnering with the Joint Genome Institute

The program began two summers ago, when teachers from eight counties in Western New York attended a two-week session at UB where they were taught state-of-the art biotechnology and medical technology techniques and methodologies. As part of the workshop, assistant professor Richard Browne, PhD, provided the teachers with laboratory supply kits he developed to aid them in incorporating the hands-on experiments into their science curricula. In addition, faculty took the teachers to visit biotechnology labs located in hospitals and companies throughout Buffalo.

The teachers were so enthused with the sessions, they asked the faculty to consider developing additional programs that could be integrated into their curricula.

Around this time, Dey-Rao suggested that the department become involved in educational programs offered through the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI). In looking into these programs, Kostyniak concluded that they would be a good fit for university-level courses, as well as for high school courses aimed at stimulating students’ interest in science careers.

In January 2010, with support from the Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences, Koury and Dey-Rao traveled to JGI headquarters in Walnut Creek, Calif., where they received training in the computer-based Integrated Microbial Genome Annotation Collaboration Tool.

“After Dr. Dey-Rao and I received this training,” says Koury, “it confirmed that it was something we could bring to the high school level, and so we wrote a third grant and got renewal funding for a third year to implement our plan.”

With funding secured, Koury and Dey-Rao recruited teachers from past summer sessions to attend the 2010 workshop that focused on teaching them software-driven gene-annotation techniques that they could then teach to high school students as a way to introduce them to the field of bioinformatics.

“An important aspect of the program is its ease of implementation in a classroom setting,” says Dey-Rao, who also works as a scientist in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “A computer with access to Firefox is all that is needed to teach the students how to manually annotate the genes as well as to introduce them to basic concepts in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and bioinformatics.”

In addition to learning gene annotation techniques, the teachers who attended the UB workshop received training from assistant professor Patricia Masso-Welch, PhD, in how they could help their students prepare professional scientific posters on their research.

A Chance to Discover and Publish

As part of the JGI program, participating universities ‘adopt’ an organism that they then work with on a long-term basis. By doing this, their students at all levels become collaborators in a JGI project called GEBA—Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archaea—which aims to systematically fill in the gaps in genome sequencing along the bacterial and archaeal branches of the tree of life.

 “What the JGI is doing with GEBA,” Koury says, “is trying to pick organisms at key branch points on the tree of life so they can look at the hierarchy of how genomes of organisms have diverged.”

The JGI presented the UB professors with a list of genomes that have been sequenced through GEBA, from which they could select the one they wanted to adopt for UB.

“We chose a bacterium called Kytococcus sedentarius, formerly Micrococcus sedentarius,” explains Koury, who also serves as director of graduate studies for his department. “Since we are a clinical laboratory science department, we were interested in this particular organism because it has some mild clinical features; namely, pitted keratolysis in people’s feet.

 “We will take a long-term approach to our study as we go through annotating these genes,” he adds. “You can find out interesting things about them and potentially we can expand this into a wet-lab training program, where we can bring the teachers and students in to do more advanced experiments and keep the training and mentoring going.”

Furthermore, students participating in the project who make discoveries can receive credit for their findings and can potentially publish their results in peer-reviewed journals.

“For high school students, it’s especially exciting to join the rest of the scientific community and be at the cutting-edge of ongoing research at the national level,” says Dey-Rao.

Genes, iPads and Moodle

One of the high school science teachers who has participated in the UB workshops since their inception is Lon Knappenberger of Westfield Central School in rural Chautauqua County.

“The summer sessions that UB did were fantastic,” says Knappenberger. “I loved them so much that when this latest one came along, I signed up immediately.”

After the first summer session, Knappenberger developed two biotechnology sections in his school that he still teaches. More recently, his district supported his request for the purchase of 20 iPads for students to use in the gene-annotating project, which began in the schools in September 2010.

Knappenberger says that the two biotechnology sections he developed “have zero lecture material” and are so popular with the students that last year 15 students signed up and this year, 35.

He notes that the students are drawn to the “hands-on” approach the class takes. For example, in a recent microbiology session, they heat-fixed a slide of yogurt and looked at lactobacillus. They also did a lactobacillus streak, incubated the yogurt for 12 hours and then checked to see if the bacterium was still present in the mix.

Many of these same students signed up for the gene annotating project. To assist them in this challenging work, Knappenberger spent 130 hours of his own time creating a tutorial with Moodle to help walk his students through the exercise.

He says that after some initial hesitation, the 10th, 11th and 12th graders participating in the project began to trust the tutorial and to use it, which gives them the independence to work on the project at home as well as at school.

 “They are having their eyes opened,” Knappenberger says. “They are learning that science is not a bunch of facts. Even with this bioinformatics project, they get unexpected answers or they get inconclusive answers, not the textbook, cookie-cutter kind of answers they’re used to getting in labs sections that help them prepare for test taking, where you already know the outcome and everybody has the result.”

Careers that Make Dollars and Sense

Knappenberger says the students are also beginning to get a feel for what training such as this might mean for their future.

“They had no idea that all these biotechnology-related careers existed and no idea how many places there are in the area that hire for these careers.

 “They didn’t even know there was such a thing as bioinformatics. If you Google the average salary for jobs in this field—which we did—it’s $71,000. That really opened their eyes!”

One of Knappenberger’s students is 11th grader Jorgette Echevarria, who would like to be a nurse.

She and her classmates worked hard to prepare their poster presentations for the mini-symposium, which served as the capstone event to their involvement in the gene-annotation project.

“I figure it’s really good to start knowing about this kind of thing,” says Echevarria. “I’ve was excited about the poster presentation a lot because I wanted to impress the professors.”

No doubt such words are music to the ears of the UB professors who have made the innovative gene-annotation program such a success.

 “There’s no question in my mind that this program is fostering an interest in students,” says Kostyniak. “They are being introduced to this science at a very early stage, when they can still do something about it.”

“It’s science at its best,” adds Koury. “It’s really an open-ended project, where it doesn’t have a scripted ending.”

Indeed, for the students who proudly presented their scientific posters in Farber Hall, the feeling in the room was that, for many, this was just the beginning.