Summer biotech program at RIC unwinds DNA

Kerri Krawczyk, a teacher at Times2 Academy, assists students with their experiments for the Large Molecule-Small Molecule Interactions project.

Kerri Krawczyk, a teacher at Times2 Academy, assists students with their experiments for the Large Molecule-Small Molecule Interactions project.
The labs inside Clarke Science at Rhode Island College were active with hypotheses, experiments, measurements and calculations as 30 high school students and 10 of their teachers paired up with college professors in the Large Molecule-Small Molecule Interactions research project, sponsored by the Department of Physical Sciences.
What began as an unfunded pilot project in the summer of 2007 is now a larger project funded for two weeks during the summers of 2008-10 by a Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education Title-II grant. Paul Tiskus, RIC associate professor of secondary education and science, and John Williams, RIC professor of chemistry are principal investigators and authors of the proposal.

The teacher-student research project ran from July 13 -17.

RIC professors John Williams, left, and Paul Tiskus are principal
investigators for the project.
“The purpose of this research was to find a way for teachers to meet the science standards for their high school,” said Tiskus.

But there are also other benefits. For example, he explained, in an average classroom with 25 students, a teacher has very limited interaction with individual students. Working in small groups with approximately three students per teacher, and researching together for an entire week, Tiskus said,” students and teachers get to know each other better and enjoy doing science together. It is a whole different level of interpersonal communication.”

In addition, the summer program allows students to explore RIC – and science – as a viable option for higher education. “We are reaching high school teachers and students, inspiring them to do real experimental and computational science, and connecting them with each other, the college, and, for the students, a possible career in science or science education,” Williams said.

Students participating in the program are in grades 9-12 and have varying background levels of chemistry and biology. “These students have been here for a week, and already their whole vocabulary has changed. They are motivated and smart. This is a very steep learning curve and they are all very capable of doing this,” Tiskus said.

Last year, seven teachers and 14 students participated; this year 10 teachers and 30 students from eight Rhode Island high schools were active in the biotechnology program.

Yanice Hinanda, right, and Maldine Santos look at
HyperChem software.
The Large Molecule-Small Molecule Interactions project involves experiments in DNA melting and electrophoresis. DNA melting is a process in which a solution of DNA is sufficiently heated in order to weaken the bonds between the two strands and cause them to break. Students recorded the variations in temperature at which melting occurs, measured by the absorbance of ultraviolet light.

Students then presented the DNA (large molecule) with small molecules to test if chemicals would bind to the DNA. Under the direction of science teacher Claire Laquerre, Woonsocket High School students Alyshia Johnson, Andrea Harnois and Toni Dimarzio, demonstrated the process of gel electrophoresis as they dropped the salmon DNA in a well of a gel-like substance. Sending an electric current through the gel, students measured how far the DNA moved in comparison to the control DNA. The purpose is to record the stability of DNA in the presence of organic binding agents.

“Calculations modeling these interactions using HyperChem software provide an introduction to computational chemistry that is seldom available to high school students,” Williams said. The software allows students to model the affects of their assigned compound with the DNA and visualize interactions that cannot be seen with the eye.

Jeff Doddio, a senior at Times2 Academy in
Providence, uses a temperature controller for
a UV spectrometer to conduct an experiment.
Kerri Krawczyk and her students Jeffery Doddio and Sorys Cepeda from Times2 Academy explained that each school is assigned a different compound. Doddio and Cepeda, both seniors this year, worked with PTPB, short for a “much longer name,” the students said. The group demonstrated the simulations of a Cary Spectrophotometer and Bio-Rad Smart Spec Plus on the HigherChem® software.

Tiskus said the research being conducted in RIC’s labs is similar to research done in pharmaceutical companies.

Students were given background information about DNA structure, mutagens, carcinogens, drugs, chemotherapy, and read research articles in addition to conducting experiments in an authentic research environment to expose them to the real-world relevance of this project.

“We are researchers,” said Tiskus. “We don’t know the right answers, but we can use what we know and take that piece of knowledge to make it simpler to figure out the problem. It gives us more confidence in finding conclusions and we hope other scientists can learn from what we have done.”

Students and teachers can continue the research in their labs at school or at RIC. All equipment used for research is portable and can be loaned out. “We hope that the teachers will work the research into their curriculum and keep the equipment circulating,” Tiskus said.

More information on the Large Molecule-Small Molecule Interactions research project can be found at