Peak Performance: Applied Biology and Experimental Design

Peak Performance: Applied Biology and Experimental Design
Debra Meyers

Honors Inquiry in Applied Biology is a project-based science seminar designed to bridge the gap between theoretical and applied biology and the techniques researchers use to explore the world from a scientific perspective. The core of the coursework: hands-on, student-driven research.

“In AP Bio students learn that this leads to this and this is how the mitochondria works and this is what an ecological landscape is comprised, for example. Everyone can memorize this type of information,” explains Science Teacher Michael McAloon. “But to think about things independently and to use critical thinking to develop hypotheses in a natural, inquisitive way is something very different.”

The seminar begins with applied learning activities around topics in ecology, conservation, animal behavior, anatomy, and molecular microbiology. From investigations of the dynamics of ecosystems and current conservation issues to the isolation of DNA for PCR analysis and the investigation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), students not only apply high level critical thinking to their work, but explore topics of real-world consequence and application. 

“Using everything we’ve talked about and read and learned, and with a strong eye toward experimental design, students come up with their own projects,” says McAloon. “Their ideas start out very raw; it is exciting to see how they develop.”

This year’s seminar students explored a range of fascinating topics, from probiotics and GMOs to herbal medicines and the transformation of E.coli using hydrocarbon-metabolizing DNA. Students also built on work McAloon did during an academic trip to the Amazon rainforest.

“A group of students has been extracting DNA from Amazonian pollen collected during my trip,” McAloon explains, “then sequencing it to determine plant species, and cross-checking it with geography. The group is field-testing an iphone-controlled, battery-powered PCR machine—a “lab-in-a-box”—to test the proof of concept that this can be used in a remote jungle. I hope to use the same technology when I return to Peru next year.”

And while the research each student conducted met or supported their individual hypothesis this year, McAloon is quick to point out that for his students, the work is as much about the process as the results. 

“These students may not all be going off to become scientists, but we all have to think like scientists in life—if you’re going into politics, business, or almost any other field, you have to be able to think critically, and examine things from a whole range of different angles. That kind of critical thinking and applied inquiry can be learned; that’s what I hope students take away from this experience.” 

Read about each project below, and watch video of the students at work using the live-link titles.

Stingless Bees: Seniors Whitney Bartol, Carol Gura, Tatum Eades

After hearing about Mr. McAloon's trip to Peru, we collectively became very interested in the conservation work that scientists are focusing on, particularly with the Maijuna indigenous group. As we learned more about stingless bees, and their importance in the overall ecosystem, we all found it important to look into what plants these bees need in order to operate in their communities. In this lab, we are able to extract and analyze specific stingless bee pollen, then giving us the DNA bands of the particular flower species that they had gathered from. This way, by identifying their pollen's origin of species, we can convey which flowers are most important to conserve in the Peruvian ecosystem, in order to give the bees their best ability to operate and thrive, for the rest of the environment. Over the past six weeks, we have performed our procedure of extraction and PCR five times, dealing with many different types of pollen, and adjusting our methodology as needed. 

Bacteria and Oil Spills: Isaac Korus’22 and Ethan Rubenstein ’23

Our research focused on bacterial transformation using plasmid DNA. We transformed a bacteria commonly found in oil spills into an E.Coli by extracting its DNA to create a compatible bacteria that could digest oil. Through the process of our experimentation, it was confirmed that science itself is variable and results can be unexpected. Further, we started to understand just how significant scientific research is and how it can be applied to the real world. 

Bacteria in Food Processing: Valeria D’Virgilio ’22

I wanted to combine scientific exploration with what I had been learning about in my scientific ethics class. Genetically modifying organisms is a huge point of controversy among our society today, so I set out to see how the insecticidal properties of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria persists through food processing. I used fruit flies because, when eaten, the Bt bacteria is activated by an enzyme in their digestive system which mammals do not have. Once activated, the Bt crystalizes and tears apart the insect from the inside, forcing them to starve (sounds gruesome, I know). My results have shown that the bacteria and its insecticidal characteristics do persist after processing, but to differing extents; how long they lived varied based on how much Bt they were ingesting, which is incredibly interesting. 

The Antibacterial Properties of Herbs and Fruits: Kaitlyn Taliaferro ’22

In AP Biology last year, I learned that plants have chemical defense mechanisms that essentially fend off predators. I was immediately intrigued because my mother and her family used various herbs and fruits to prevent the common cold and ailments, so I decided that my project would be plant-based. I chose to explore the antibacterial properties of the herbs and fruits of my childhood and the traditional medicines in Guyana. Guyana is a developing country, and many Guyanese people do not have a source of successful and cheap pharmaceuticals, so I wanted to discover the best accessible herb or fruit to help fend off illnesses. The project allowed me to learn lab techniques that I will apply in college, such as plating agar, culturing bacteria, and analyzing data. My project also allows me to engage in research similar to what I hope to be doing in my future field, biomedical engineering.

Probiotics: Diana Braghis ’22

I chose to study probiotics because of the “health benefits” attributed to them. As a vegetarian, I am always learning about nutrition, so during the months of January and February in particular I read a lot about balanced diets. That is how I learned more about probiotics. For my experiment, I compared yogurt, a product known for the probiotics it contains, with Lactobacillus acidophilus, a strain of probiotic. While the Lactobacillus proved to be more effective in “fighting” E.coli, the yogurts I tested prevented some E.coli growth. The health benefits attributed to yogurt are definitely true. 

I am very pleased with the independent work skills I developed while conducting this experiment. From writing the proposal to performing the tests, my teacher had little input into the work I was doing, which meant I had the freedom to conduct research into what I was interested in. I plan to continue taking some classes in biology during my college years, so the experience of this semester — designing and performing an experiment on my own — will definitely serve me well.