One of Stuyvesant’s main selling points at open house events is the wide variety and excellent quality of the school’s science electives. Two of the best known are the Molecular Biology sequence and the Genetics Research course. Many students, however, do not know what they are getting into when they sign up online.
Every day during periods six through eight, two sections of sophomores meet in Room 730 to learn molecular biology techniques, read papers on major experiments, and write lab reports. The Molecular Science elective, taught by biology teachers Anne Manwell and Dr. John Utting, is offered every fall, while its counterpart, Molecular Genetics, is offered in the spring.
To be selected for the sequence, a student must submit an application, which entails an essay explaining his passion for research science, in the spring of their freshman year. Applicants must also have a minimum average of 93 in Living Environment.
One of the many techniques taught in the course is the use of Methylene Blue dilution series, which is used to “stain,” or mark, a gene so that it may be tracked throughout the later stages of an experiment in order to identify intercellular transfer of genes.
Another technique uses recombinant DNA technology to insert a gene for fluorescence into Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. The E. coli is then allowed to multiply under appropriate conditions. An observable glow of the E. coli signifies successful transformation of the gene.
Although most students enjoy the class, it is not without its challenges. Students are responsible for completing detailed lab reports for each experiment—a big responsibility for students who have only recently become familiar with the laboratory environment.
Junior Zambeta Tsapos, who took the class last year, explained that instructions for experiments are often explained only once, and handouts with directions are not always provided, often leaving students to conduct experiments with only their personal notes as guides.
Students found the labs both stressful and rewarding. “It became difficult when time was an issue, and there’s also the pressure to not make mistakes and mess up. But there was also something very exciting, fulfilling, and rewarding about that,” Junior Helen Nie said.
Nonetheless, the class struggled together and had a good time. “The fact that we all had to collaborate and work closely alongside other students ended up inevitably pulling all of us closer,” Tsapos said.
Nie liked the hands-on parts and nontraditional classroom approach. “Instead of reading about experiments, we could actually do them ourselves,” Nie said.
Both Nie and Tsapos felt that they came out of the course with new perspectives on lab work. “It told me something about preparing for things in advance and staying focused during a task. When I didn’t prepare enough for a lab, I usually ended up very confused, but when I did prepare and stayed focused on each step of the lab, it was a lot of fun,” Nie said.
“[Molecular Biology] gave me a more realistic perspective on science and how things were conducted in a laboratory, albeit not always perfectly,” said Tsapos.
Many scientifically oriented students have also enjoyed Genetics Research, an AP Biology prerequisite taught by biology teacher Dr. Maria Nedwidek in the fall. Nedwidek also teaches Medical Human Genetics in the spring.
The class covers Mendelian genetics, gene interaction, and molecular biology. “We start with Mendel, because it has brought applications to general approaches to crosses, to human genetics and pedigrees, and Punnett squares,” Dr. Nedwidek said. “Things we discuss with Mendel we apply to every other unit in the class.”
According to Dr. Nedwidek, gene interaction “gets pretty complicated, because we talk about mapping genes and how we examine genes at the genetic, analytic level,” she said.
The class culminates with a project in which students analyze their own DNA. Nedwidek said that students find this project exciting; in fact, this was what attracted sophomore Lily Yuan, who currently takes the class.
Yuan completed the project on a Saturday at school, but past students traditionally took a trip on a school day to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Citing “financial reasons and logistical concerns,” Nedwidek arranged for a kit to arrive at school so students could work on the project there instead.
After attending a workshop, students who attended the trip copied their DNA in order to find their ALU sequences and compared their class results. An ALU sequence, a kind of a jumping gene, is a DNA sequence that can move itself to a new position in a cell’s DNA. The location and number of ALU insertions in a person’s genome correlate with ethnicity, so students used a National Institute of Health (NIH) database to see which ethnicity their results matched.
Nedwidek’s electives are marked by her attention to detail and thorough use of preparatory material. Depending on the day and topic, Nedwidek sometimes sends her notes via e-mail to her students beforehand. “I try to prepare them ahead of time for what we’re going to be doing, so they know a few days in advance,” she said.
To Dr. Nedwidek, the purpose of the class depends on the student. “Some students are taking it to fulfill the science elective requirement,” she said. “But more students take it, because they want a more detailed knowledge of how genetic analysis is done, what genetics really is, [...] and why genetics is important. Understanding the entirety of the genome is critical to understanding the formation of human disease.”
Senior Jamie Zhan suggests a more personal purpose to the class. “It teaches us who we are and how we got here,” he said. “Self-discovery in the most literal sense.”