Feb. 28, 2014, Blue Bell, Pa.— Forty Upper Merion Area High School (UMAHS) students enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology classes recently visited the biotechnology labs at Montgomery County Community College to advance their skills and knowledge through hands-on activities.
“We start the day learning how to use the equipment efficiently before doing the experiment,” said Biotechnology Assistant Professor Margaret Bryans, who coordinates the visits. “To make it fun, we hold a micropipette Olympic challenge, in which the top students receive gold, silver and bronze medals for their pipetting accuracy.”
For the challenge, students used micropipettes to measure a total of two milliliters of fluid. Each measurement required the students to perform different calculations to determine the correct amount of fluid to be pipetted from beakers into a container. When they finished their pipetting, they had their containers weighed. The students with the amount fluid that weighed closest to two milliliters won the medals.
This year’s winners included Renee Cresse (gold), Justin Green (silver) and Antara Mondal (bronze) from one class; and Caitlyn Ramirez (gold); Hope Lu (silver); and Kelsey Wang (bronze) from a second class. Since the initial measurements done by Ramirez and Lu were tied for accuracy, Bryans held a rematch with Ramirez winning with an impressive 0.08 percent error.
“We have had this collaboration for several years,” said Dr. Michael Werner, who has taught AP Biology and Biology at Upper Merion Area High School for 15 years. “This is a great opportunity for the students to do college-level research using equipment here in the lab.”
After the students were comfortable with the lab and the equipment, they learned about the process of biotechnology—applying technology to cells to make a product. These applications, Bryans explained, are used to genetically modify organisms; for example, plant cells are modified to create disease-resistant plants and animal cells can be genetically modified to make a biopharmaceutical
Then, by doing a hands-on activity, the students learned about protein purification, which involves a series of processes to isolate a single protein from a complex cellular mixture. They started with E. coli cells that had been modified to produce green fluorescent protein (GFP), which allowed the students to see the fluorescent protein throughout the process using an ultraviolet light. Their experiment started by opening the cells using sonication, the use of high-frequency sound waves. Next by using column chromatography, they isolated the GFP protein and finally they analyzed it by gel electrophoresis.
Overall, the students thoroughly enjoyed their day in the laboratory.
“It was challenging, yet fun. I realize how precise I have to be now,” said Vamsi Rojulpote, an 11th grade UMAHS student from King of Prussia.
“It is a good hands-on experience using the lab tools,” said Ysabelle Martinez, a UMAHS senior, also from King of Prussia. “Experiences like these will help me to decide what I want to major in when I go to college.”
MCCC hosts high school students throughout the year to introduce them to biotechnology and the programs available at the College.
“Last year we had about 200 high school and middle school students visit the labs to do various activities,” Bryans said. “In the summer, we also host a program for high school teachers funded by our National Science Foundation grant.”
The College offers both an Applied Associate in Science and an Associate in Science degree programs with direct articulation agreements with several local four-year college programs. Two introductory courses, Introduction to Biotechnology (BIT120) and Techniques and Instrumentation in Biotechnology (BIT123) are offered in Fall 2014 semester.
Also, starting in Fall 2014, the College will offer a new 16-credit Certificate of Completion in Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing designed to provide hands-on, industry-relevant training to students who already hold associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in science and who want to join the biotechnology workforce. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for individuals with degrees in other disciplines to retrain for careers in biotechnology and biomanufacturing.
According to the U.S. Department Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job prospects for biological technicians is expected to grow by 14 percent through 2020, and the prospects for biochemists and biophysicists is expected to increase by 31 percent.
-- Diane VanDyke
PHOTO: Upper Merion Area High School students recently visited biotechnology labs at Montgomery County Community College to advance their skills and knowledge through hands-on laboratory activities. Photo by Diane VanDyke