Science Students Work on Human Genome Sequencing

During the Upper School's week-long Mini-term in March, students chose from a variety of special-topic classes—from architecture to zoo-keeping—that piqued their interests and ignited their passions.

For one group of students, the course that most appealed to them was a class on Genomics, a hands-on lab class designed by newest STEM teacher Brian Davis.

"It was a very intensive class," says sophomore Macey Turbow. "We met each morning at 8 a.m. and usually worked for eight hours a day."

The purpose of the course was for students to gain the knowledge and skills for next-generation genomic sequencing. And the work had to be exemplary, because they were sending the results to the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, a nonprofit biological research institution. Mr. Davis says Dunn is one of the first high schools on the West Coast to be part of the lab's research program.

The students worked on gathering and sequencing two genes—ACE and ACTN3—both of which are related to physical endurance and performance. They also worked on the OXTR gene, which is related to oxytocin production and is often called the "love gene."

"We gathered our samples from teachers on campus," Macey says with a smile. "But we kept everything confidential, for ethical reasons."

Throughout the week, students learned advanced lab skills, like how to correctly use pipettes and program the machines they used to analyze the results of their tests. "These are skills that are usually taught in senior-level college labs," Mr. Davis explains.


Brian Davis came to Dunn from a school in Maine, where he worked with Jackson Laboratory, where he was a selected as a fellow in the Teaching the Genome Generation project. He also participated in a STEM training program for people in industry to enter the teaching profession. Before he became a teacher, he launched a medical software company in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mr. Davis says that after teaching a community college course in the sciences, he was impressed by the inquisitiveness of the high school students in the class. "I get excited by getting others excited about the leading edges of science and technology," he says. "And those high school students were really into the course material. So when an opportunity to teach arose, I jumped at it."

As for this spring's genomics class at Dunn, he says he's never seen students so engaged before. "Their interest was natural, and they understood how [the science] connects to them personally," he says. "They were self-directed and were eager to navigate the complexity of the work."

And the best part about the class, he says, is that the work they did was excellent. "My friends at the lab back in Maine couldn't believe how well these high school students did on the lab work," he says.

STEM Department chair Donna Frost is impressed with the process the students went through during this intensive course. "Brian motivated and led students with widely diverse backgrounds in science, math, and technology through a world-class research experience," she says. "They rose to the challenge and exceeded our expectations."

"Many of the students said this experience has inspired them to pursue further work in STEM fields," she adds. "This is precisely the outcome we strive for in our real-world experientially based STEM program at Dunn. And we're absolutely thrilled that Brian has joined our team."

Mr. Davis hopes that the focus and intensity of this course will open new student interests and avenues of research at Dunn. And his efforts seem to be having the desired effect.

Three students in the class are headed to college institutes this summer to conduct scientific research. Sophomore Allen Lin was one of only 40 students accepted to Yale University's Young Global Scholars Program, where he will focus on artificial intelligence and virtual reality technology. And junior Theo Brown will study at the Stem Cell Research Program at Pathways to Stem Cell Science, a nonprofit "career kick-starter" for aspiring scientists.

And Macey—"the only girl in the class," she points out—gained acceptance to the Scientific and Engineering Research Academy (SERA) at UC Santa Barbara, where she will study bio-chemistry and do independent research on micro-organisms. 

The funnest part of the class for Macey? "It was fun bonding with my classmates," she says, "and it's great to see how all the different minds work in the lab."

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