Media Contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892
High school students in URI biotech class
going to Hawaii to present research
at international conference
KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 23, 2003 -- When URI adjunct professor Albert Kausch visited South Kingstown High School last fall to see if any students would be interested in participating in one of his upper-level biotechnology classes, Courtney Delmonico and Hillary Peabody jumped at the chance.
"Ive always had an interest in genetics and how everything works, so the class offered me a chance to get some firsthand experience," said Delmonico, a sophomore from Wakefield.
The students turned their two-semester experience learning side-by-side with URI undergraduate students into an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii this July to show off their research at the international conference of the American Society of Plant Biologists. But it wasnt easy.
"I was taking my first biology class this year, so I had just a very basic idea about DNA," Delmonico said. "The college students had all the prerequisite courses and more of a background in genetics. We didnt even know most of the terms." And the course was held in late afternoon after the students had already completed a full day of high school classes.
Yet with a little mentoring by South Kingstown science teachers Jeff Johnson and Greg Stevens, the students kept pace with the URI undergraduates. And that was part of what Kausch intended.
Kausch designed his "Modern Techniques in Genetic Engineering" class as a unique, project-based course during which students work on real-world problems in plant biotechnology while learning the necessary lab techniques. "Most people told me that the projects I wanted the students to tackle were Ph.D. projects and you cant do them with undergraduates," he said. "But I told them that not only can I do them with undergraduates, I can do them with high school students. And the students proved me right."
Kausch divided the classes into teams, one working on rice and the other on turfgrass. Team Rice, which included Delmonico, Peabody and several other South Kingstown High School students, attempted to genetically engineer a strain of rice that was used in the rice genome project. "While all of the genes in rice have now been sequenced, we still dont know what most of them do," Kausch explained.
The rice research project, in collaboration with Yale University, will help discover the function of various genes in this important crop plant. The project also resulted in an abstract co-authored by the students and published in the proceedings of the conference. Along the way, the students learned tissue culture, gene transfer techniques, and all the theory and background information needed by molecular biologists.
"I would just love to become a molecular biologist," said Delmonico. "Im now considering colleges based on their genetics program. I had some interest in it before, but I was very undecided about it. The class experience gave me the chance to test my interest. And now I absolutely know Id love to go into this field."
The experience is also having an impact on the high schools science department. "More and more of the biology curriculum is geared to molecular biology," explained Johnson, "and there are lots of techniques Ive learned from Alberts class that hopefully we can apply in the classroom. Its cutting edge stuff."
When Delmonico and Peabody join Kausch and several other students at the conference in Hawaii, which will also be attended by 15,000 plant scientists from around the world, theyll get to talk about the experience they had in the class and attend a variety of seminars. The trip is funded by LifeEdu.org, a non-profit biotechnology education organization founded by Kausch and sponsored by Pfizer, Inc.
"It will be a great experience going to the conference," Delmonico said, "because there will be so many experts in the field there, well be exposed to all the latest experiments. I cant wait."
For Further Information: Albert Kausch 874-9900