2011-07-21 / Front Page

E.B. students uncover DNA mysteries at RU

Two seniors taking part in summer seminar at Waksman Institute of Microbiology
Staff Writer

Brinda Banerji and Adam Horowitz get to work at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. Brinda Banerji and Adam Horowitz get to work at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. EAST BRUNSWICK — For two East Brunswick High School seniors, school isn’t out for the summer.

While many of their classmates might be soaking in the rays at the Jersey Shore or enjoying a ballgame, Brinda Banerji and Adam Horowitz are working on the genomic sequence analysis of Wolffia australiana, a type of duckweed.

Banerji and Horowitz are just two high school scholars participating in a three-week summer seminar at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, which teaches students about everything from experimental design to modern molecular genetics through a genuine research project.

Part of the Waksman Student Scholar Program honors class at East Brunswick High School, the seniors will bring what they learn at the institute back to their classmates to continue the research in the fall, said Anne Sanelli, a biology teacher at East Brunswick High School.

A pass-fail course, the Waksman class is held after school, with many students following it through three years of high school, Sanneli said.

“Because there is not that grade, it makes it fun,” she said. “And because it’s fun, they ultimately may think this is something that they may want to choose as a career.”

This year’s research project for the Waksman Student Scholar Program focuses on duckweed, a common freshwater flowering plant, said Andrew Vershon, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Rutgers University and the director of the program. Duckweed is interesting to scientists for two reasons, Vershon said. First, duckweed can be used for potential bioremediation because it can extract nitrogen and phosphate from wastewater.

“There’s actually a town in Thailand that uses duckweed to purify its water,” Vershon said .

Second, as an extremely starchy plant, Vershon said it can potentially be used to make biofuels.

“They can use it as a source for ethanol,” Vershon said.

Students like Banerji and Horowitz in the Waksman Student Scholar program are working to expand the scientific knowledge of duckweed by sequencing and analyzing isolating fragments of DNAfrom the plant, Vershon said. This is the same kind of work being completed by college undergraduates, he said.

“The experiments that they are doing are the same my college junior classes are doing,” Vershon said. “They are four years ahead.”

Since none of this sequencing has been done yet, Vershon said, all of the data is posted on the Internet for other scientists to use. This gives these students the unique distinction of being published.

Horowitz, who will also attend a summer program at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, said he has already been published and that it provides a great sense of pride.

“It’s just a really cool thing to say you’ve been published as a scientist,” Horowitz said.

All this experience, Vershon hopes, will spark student interest in science and maybe help them to pursue research early in their college careers.

As representatives of the 60 East Brunswick students in theWaksman Student Scholars Program, the two seniors will bring their experience at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology back to the classroom and instruct their peers on the duckweed research project.

“Our job is to make sure that everyone is doing it right,” Horowitz said. “We are going to go over all of the lab procedures and then actually do them and monitor all the other students to make sure they are doing it right.”

A bit of the Waksman Institute will literally come with them as well, through a lending service that provides some of the expensive lab equipment for schools to use during the school year, Vershon said.

The East Brunswick Education Foundation has also helped to provide grants to help supplement the equipment on loan from Rutgers, Sanelli said.

“It is just very, very helpful,” she said.

Sanelli said the Waksman Student Scholars Program is a great opportunity, providing them not only with research experience but the opportunity to forge friendships with student researchers across the state as well.

“Those are the students that they are interacting with in this community of scientists,” Sanelli said. “They email each other and text each other. … That is what is important, that interaction in that community of scientists.”

Sanelli said East Brunswick students who have participated in the program have gone on toYale, Princeton, Harvard and MIT, continuing their research there. One student even secured an internship with NASA.

But students aren’t the only ones learning at the Waksman Institute. Teachers also participate in the summer program, attending seminars and spending time in labs to learn some of the latest microbiology techniques and analysis methods. And though she has been doing the program for 18 years, Sanelli said she still learns something new every year.

“As a teacher, if you don’t grow in your field, you stagnate,” she said. “It’s growth for my students and it’s also growth for me.”

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