In Pursuit of Bitterness
Team Members: Silvia Vicenzi (University of California, San Diego), Veronica Pagowski (Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University)
A variety of scientific protocols and techniques are relatively easy to learn and introduce topics that are fundamental to understanding basic principles in biology. Many of these methods are widely applied across many fields within the biosciences and beyond. Such techniques offer a unique opportunity to engage students with diverse interests and allow for students to make connections across multiple fields. Additionally, they allow students to get hands-on experiences in science, even without extensive background knowledge. In outreach projects made possible by the ROC Alumni award, we held hands-on classes demonstrating such techniques in San Diego and Monterey County schools and organizations dedicated to serving student communities. In these classes, we focused on a few key methods that helped us demonstrate how scientists isolate and analyze DNA, and how these techniques are used in different contexts – from neuroscience to ecology to forensics. In these classes, we first demonstrated how to extract DNA from fruit and from our own cheek cells. We then visualized our DNA by testing for specific alleles (bitter taste and lactose intolerance) with PCR and gel electrophoresis. We also brought live invertebrates to some classes so that students could get hands-on experiences visualizing small organisms under the microscope. To demonstrate how these techniques are relevant in different fields we discussed how we use these techniques and others in our own work. In each class, we incorporated many opportunities for students to practice techniques by working together in groups.
Goals and Objectives
The overall goal of these outreach events was to promote science in communities with limited access to hands-on training in science and to encourage young people to make connections between studying science at school and career opportunities through interactive lab activities.
By introducing students to basic principles in biology and demonstrating how these are applied in different contexts, we also wanted to demystify scientific protocols by highlighting how different techniques rely on similar principles. Additionally, we aimed to highlight different career paths and opportunities within science by sharing our paths in science – as well as the paths of volunteers who helped us with outreach events. Finally, we wanted to use this grant opportunity as a platform to make connections and begin collaborations with local institutions that we plan to continue to collaborate with in the future. We hope that the outreach events that we began will help us continue to foster these connections to provide students with opportunities to get involved in science.
In December 2022 we kicked off some outreach events with local schools (including elementary, middle, and high school students). In one zoom event, we introduced ourselves and talked about how our work relates to a DNA extraction the students were doing in the lab. In another event, we brought sea stars and sea star larvae for students to observe. Students also participated in hands-on activities to learn about how neurons work. We held a third event in San Diego with middle and high school students. In this full-day class, we introduced our own work, including current and past projects and discussed how it related to the hands-on projects that we demonstrated during the class. We discussed each of these methods and why they work before splitting students into groups to practice. These protocols included DNA extraction (from student cheek cells and fruits), PCR, and gel electrophoresis to find out whether students had different alleles for bitterness tasting. For this experiment, we modified an online protocol to test which allele students had for a specific taste receptor that is involved in bitterness tasting. Throughout the day, students had opportunities to try their hand at each protocol. One person from each group of 4-5 volunteered to extract their DNA with the help of group members. Afterwards, students learned how to run a PCR reaction and visualize the results using gel electrophoresis.
For continued projects in 2023, we plan to work more with the organizations and schools that we began working with to run these events. Specifically, we aim to adopt the one-day workshop demonstrating DNA extraction and visualization to a longer workshop, in collaboration with UC San Diego. This workshop will be held with last year’s high-school students over the course of 3 days in a summer workshop.
Outcomes and Impact
Throughout the outreach events made possible by the ROC Alumni grant, we had the opportunity to connect with students from multiple different communities. Overall, we worked with over 120 students from three different schools. These included students from Cajon Valley middle school as well students from middle schools in Salinas, CA. In June of 2023 we plan to continue workshops with a smaller group of 20-30 high school students before enrolling in college at UC San Diego.