Perspectives Online

Biotech 101. A new summer school program introduces high-school students to molecular biology. By Anton Zuiker

The Summer College in Biotechnology and Life Sciences gave these gifted high-school science students opportunities to work with state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment as they earned certificates of completion and commemorative lab coats.
The Summer College in Biotechnology and Life Sciences gave these gifted high-school science students (above and below) opportunities to work with state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment as they earned certificates of completion - and commemorative lab coats.
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
Last summer, Burlington high-school student Matt Au enjoyed a lazy break from classes - he slept in most days. But this summer, the rising senior at Greensboro Day School was up bright and early each weekday in June, ready for the challenges of N.C. State's Summer College in Biotechnology and Life Sciences.

The summer college is a pilot program to bring gifted science students to N.C. State for an intense period of instruction in which the students learn in the classroom about molecular biology and then step into a lab for hands-on experimentation using state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment.

The Summer College in Biotechnology and Life Sciences gave these gifted high-school science students opportunities to work with state-of-the-art biotechnology equipment as they earned certificates of completion and commemorative lab coats.
(Photo by Daniel Kim)
“It’s all new to me,” says Au. “We don’t have this equipment at my school.” Au and 10 other students practiced molecular cloning and DNA transformation using tobacco genes, and they tried polymerase chain reaction, an important technique for copying the genes of a cell.

Instructor Chad Jordan, a botany doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says this early exposure to biotechnology gives students an important advantage. “It’s knowledge they don’t have to learn when they get here,” he says. He and the other instructors say that a byproduct of the summer college is that these advanced students might eventually return to N.C. State as undergraduate or graduate students.

The summer program includes an introduction to college life at N.C. State. Students take an accelerated version of ALS 103, a course that all CALS students are required to take to learn about College policies and opportunities and how best to manage time.

After hearing a pep talk about the CALS application process from College Associate Dean and Academic Programs Director Kenneth Esbenshade one steamy afternoon in June, the eleven summer students gathered in a computer lab. Instructors handed each student a PalmOne Zire 71 and explained how to use the electronic personal data assistant to save phone numbers and schedule appointments. But the PDA’s digital camera was the most popular feature. Over the next weeks, students used the PDAs to record their experiences during the summer college, and they presented their creative projects to the group at the end of the program.

Carol Cutler White, research administrator in the College’s Center for Integrated Fungal Research (CIFR), developed the summer college as a way to reach out to budding scientists. The center is funded by a large grant from the National Science Foundation for work on the rice blast genome, and CIFR Director Ralph Dean says the summer college fulfills the NSF grant’s emphasis on facilitating interaction between scientists and the public.

“We have a lot of capable grad students and young instructors champing at the bit to practice their skills,” says Dean. The summer college, as well as an outreach program that provides North Carolina school teachers with a “toolbox” for science education, lets N.C. State’s scientists spread their knowledge.

That seems to be working. At the program’s closing ceremony, rising senior Daniel Bullock was itching to receive his certificate of completion and commemorative lab coat. His father, sitting beside him, joked with Cutler White about the fruits of Daniel’s participation in the program.

Daniel had told his family about learning to manipulate the tobacco genome, said Neblett Bullock. “We have grapes in our backyard, and Daniel said we could splice the nicotine gene into them. ‘Then everyone will be addicted to our grapes,’” he recounted.

“But that would be illegal,” Daniel added with a laugh. His scientific musings, though mischievous, reflected the success of the summer program.