On a chilly Friday morning in early January, 26 Regis seniors, accompanied by their biology teacher, Dr. William Carew, file out of the 85th Street door after Advisement and head straight to the 6 train. Four quick stops later, they emerge from the subway and complete the by-now familiar journey to the Harlem DNA Lab located at 120th Street and First Avenue.
There, Melissa Lee, the Lab Manager, warmly welcomes the boys for the third time this school year. Surrounded by state-of-the-art equipment and supervised by a team of highly experienced researchers-turned-teachers, the boys dive into today’s lab work, this one involving a PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction, a process by which a single copy of a DNA sequence is exponentially amplified to generate over a billion copies of a particular DNA segment.
This year marks the a decade now that Regis High School has been sending its Senior Biology class to the Harlem DNA Lab. As Dr. Carew recalls, “We were among their first customers when the DNA Learning Center opened its Harlem branch in 2008.” The Harlem DNA Lab is a satellite of the world-renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, home to eight Nobel Prize winners (including James Watson of the scientific duo, Watson and Crick, who along with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA).
Staffed by PhD biologists and educators, the 1,200 square foot lab occupies space within the John S. Roberts Educational Complex and is dedicated to teaching 5th-12th grade students the fundamentals as well as the latest developments in DNA-based science. During a typical school year, at least 65 different high schools (representing over 3,000 student visitations) will make the trip to the DNA Lab for half or full day lab work. But while most schools average two visits, usually with two different sets of students, Regis is the only school to make three visits, and each time with the same set of students. At the complex, students perform a series of labs, each one designed to build on the previous one in terms of the knowledge, techniques, equipment, and skills required.
The first lab, entitled “DNA Restriction Analysis,” is focused on gel electrophoresis and requires the use of micropipettes and centrifuges, with which the boys learn to cut and “measure” DNA fragments. In the second lab, the boys carry out a “Bacterial Transformation” where they transform bacteria with a jelly fish “glowing” gene, causing these bacteria to take on luminous properties of their own.
For their final lab, the Regians perform “Human Mitochondrial DNA Sequencing” (with parental permission, of course). This process, by using samples of the boys’ own cells from saliva, allows the students to uncover information about their maternal ancestry. “The boys love this lab,” says Dr. Carew, “because not only can they find out some real detail about their own family’s history on Mom’s side (we all inherit mitochondria from our mother), but they can also compare their genetic make-up to each other’s, to Neanderthals, and even to other living organisms.”
“It’s like being a kid in a toy store,” says Senior Jacob Kaiserman, who believes a career in medicine might be in his future. “Only, we get to explore important scientific ideas with state-of-the-art equipment.” Kaiserman, who conducts his senior service work at Memorial Sloane Kettering Hospital, also points out that having exposure to techniques like the ones they learn at the DNA Lab gives Regians a leg up to be chosen to do lab and research work in college.
Mastering the techniques, however, could not be possible without having a solid understanding of DNA biology before they walk in the lab door. And as Melissa Lee points out, Regis boys know more than most high school students she works with. “I love having them here. They are extremely smart and well-mannered. They ask great questions and come up with things I haven’t even thought about, so sometimes it’s a challenge even for me.”
Senior Cole Mader says the instructors at the Harlem Center represent “a rare combination of researchers who are also very passionate and engaging educators, willing to work hand-in-hand with us and explain the most complex topics.” His friend, Jacob, echoed these sentiments saying, “Our instructors were able to answer the weird questions we asked, including topics related to newer material that wouldn’t be in a text book.”
In recent years, several Regis students have found a way to take the learning at the DNA Lab one step further by being accepted to the Lab’s highly selective Urban Barcode Research Program. This program pairs 40 students a year with a mentor-scientist to conduct original research aimed at unlocking the secrets of living organisms through a wide variety of DNA lab work and gene sequencing. Capping off this program for the lucky students is the opportunity to present, and potentially publish, their original research. Joshua Antony ’20, who worked with a doctor of virology at Mt. Sinai for eight months and won first prize for his project, tells of having discovered a heretofore unknown virus in German cockroaches living in NYC. His classmate, Henry Lee ’20, teamed up with a doctor of microbiology at Queens Community College in Henry’s hometown of Bayside to study the genetic variances of bacteria found in public spaces verses those living in more isolated locations.
Robert Koniuta ’18, who landed a genetics-based research position through another program, partnered with a PhD in microbiology from Dominican College for seven weeks to uncover the specific function of two homologous genes found in a certain species of yeast. Robert’s research paper is currently on track to be published in Scientific Reports, an online journal from Nature Research. Robert described the benefits of doing original research in a lab: “It’s one thing to learn the techniques needed to succeed in a micro-biology course, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you are conducting original research and there isn’t any step-by-step process that you are directed to follow. I learned an invaluable lesson in problem solving and the creativity needed to come up with novel solutions to scientific challenges.”
The long-running partnership that Regis has enjoyed with the Harlem DNA Lab is a perfect example of the kinds of experiences that Regis as a school hopes to offer more frequently to its students, regardless of the subject. “The opportunities for our students to take advantage of this city’s resources are almost endless,” says Regis President Dan Lahart. “And investing in partnerships with best-in-class institutions like the DNA Lab, which brings the curriculum alive in an exciting and interactive fashion for our boys, is at the heart of some of the academic enhancements we are exploring as part of the Strategic Plan.”
“Almost 50% of the Senior Biology curriculum is focused on DNA, which plays a major role in everything from the food supply chain to the latest advancements in medicines,” says Dr. Carew, summing up the importance of the alliance with the DNA lab. “There is no doubt that the work the boys conduct at the DNA Lab represents a huge advantage in terms of their total learning experience.”
The boys couldn’t agree more. As Cole Mader, who currently aspires to be a neurologist, observes “When most of your understanding of a subject is cerebral and classroom-based, this kind of lab work not only proves how cool and fun science can be, it also shows the awesome real world value and applications of the concepts we study.”