CALS lab nurtures high school student’s interest in science

Date posted: February 7, 2012

Rodrigo Olarte, Dr. Ignazio Carbone and Jacobo Rozo PossoPictured from left are Rodrigo Olarte, Dr. Ignazio Carbone and Jacobo Rozo Posso.

Media contacts: Dr. Ignazio Carbone, Associate Professor of Plant Pathology, 919.513.4866 or ignazio_carbone@ncsu.edu; Dr. Lisa Guion, assistant dean for diversity, 919.513.0489 or lisa_guion@ncsu.edu

Jacobo Rozo Posso developed an interest in science and plants as an 8-year-old. He’s 17 now, a junior at Cary High School. Science is still his passion and an interest that is being nurtured in a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences laboratory.

The soft-spoken high school student typically spends three afternoons a week after his high school classes in the lab of Dr. Ignazio Carbone, associate professor of plant pathology.

What does a high school student do in a laboratory at a major research university? Carbone’s research focuses on developing a better understanding of the genetics of a fungus called Aspergillus flavus. Aspergillus flavus produces aflatoxins, toxins that can render crops like corn unusable. A better understanding of when and why Aspergillus flavus produces aflatoxins would help farmers avoid the toxins and protect their crops.

So that’s what Jacobo does, all the things that must go on in a lab in order to tease apart the genetics of Aspergillus flavus.

“Jacobo makes media (in which to grow fungi),” says Rodrigo Olarte, a doctoral student working with Carbone who has become a mentor to Jacobo. “He preps for experiments, he’s moving more into experimental work. He’s done some DNA extraction.

“We’ve taken him through different protocols as far as some of the routine genetic experiments are concerned. And he’s been exposed to computer programs that we use here in the lab to be able to analyze data.”

Jacobo’s path to Carbone’s lab began in the summer of 2011, when he participated in a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences program called CAALS 3D, which stands for Creating Awareness of Agriculture and Life Sciences Disciplines, Degree Programs and Discoveries.

CAALS 3D, which was developed by Dr. Lisa Guion, CALS assistant dean for diversity, and the CALS Diversity Council that Guion leads, brings high school students to campus for a week-long exposure to science and research. CAALS 3D targets male African-American, Hispanic-Latino and Native American youth. According to Guion, these groups are the most under-represented in the CALS student population. Familiarizing these students with CALS while they are in high school may persuade some of them to consider CALS degree programs when they graduate.

Guion spearheaded the memorandum of understanding between CALS and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for CAALS 3D. While most CAALS 3D participants are School of Science and Math students, the program is open to and has served other high school students, including those referred by local schools and organizations like the N.C. Society of Hispanic Professionals.

Jacobo says a science teacher at Cary High told him about CAALS 3D. After spending a week in N.C. State labs, Jacobo wanted more, so he approached Guion about extending his research experience. Guion, in turn, asked Carbone whether he might be able to find something for Jacobo to do in his lab. Carbone, whose lab was not included in the 2011 CAALS 3D experience, said yes.  Jacobo is the fifth CAALS 3D student to participate in this mentor guided research component of the program, continuing to work in a CALS laboratory throughout the academic year.

It’s difficult to keep Jacobo out of the lab. “It’s very interesting science,” Jacobo says of his N.C. State experience. “Aspergillus flavus has really caught my attention.”

Before his experience in Carbone’s lab, Jacobo’s interest lay in plants, Venus flytraps specifically. Jacobo became fascinated with Venus flytraps when he was 11 years old and saw one for sale in a WalMart store.

A few years later, he learned about genetics, Gregor Mendel and genetic engineering.

“I wanted to learn about genetic engineering,” Jacobo explains. “I wanted to repeat the work of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. He started out crossing pea plants. I wanted to do the same, but I did it with the Venus flytrap.”

Jacobo bought a Venus fly trap. And another. And another. Then he had two greenhouses built outside his home for the flytraps. Then he taught himself tissue culture techniques, which took a year, in order to cross his flytraps. Today, one of the greenhouses is full, with more than 3,000 Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants. He plans to fill the other greenhouse with yet more Venus flytraps.

In the meantime, he spends as much time as possible in Carbone’s lab.

“Jacobo has a tenacity that I’ve rarely seen in students, where he stays late and works on things,” says Carbone.

Jacobo doesn’t have a car, much less a driver’s license, so he often relies on Olarte to drive him home. Olarte says he and Jacobo have worked in the lab as late as 10 p.m. Olarte jokes that they left at 10 p.m. only “because I was hungry.”

“When I come here, it’s doing something that will eventually help people,” says Jacobo. “With my help, they are able to move faster in their research, so that’s something that I really like. This lab is just great.”

As for life after high school, Jacobo hopes to pursue his interest in science.

“I’m interested in genetic engineering, microbiology, botany and molecular biology,” he says.  “I’ve always liked science since I was 8 years old. I’ve always been interested in science, so I plan to do something related to science all my life.”

Carbone, Olarte and Guion would like to see Jacobo pursue his scientific interest in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. That may not be a particularly hard sell.

Based on his experience in Carbone’s lab, Jacobo says there’s “a really, really good chance” he’ll attend N.C. State.

CAALS 3D, now in its third year, has shown some early success in recruiting students. “Using data from the first CAALS 3D cohort to graduate from high school, the program has already produced tangible benefits in that 45 percent, or nine students, are now enrolled as freshman at N.C. State, of which 33 percent are majoring in a CALS discipline. According to NCCSM, this is the first time that such a large group of their minority males has enrolled at NCSU, and the first time that more of them enrolled at NCSU than at UNC-Chapel Hill,” says Guion.

Written by: Dave Caldwell, 919.513.3127 or dave_caldwell@ncsu.edu

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