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Honors Research Class Enriching Students' Experience

Abigail Berk
Posted On: Friday, March 8, 2019

Students in a labA first-year honors research class at Ottawa Hills is generating new academic opportunities for its six inaugural students, from publishing research in academic journals and receiving coveted college admissions to winning summer-long internships at world-class labs.

The class was made possible by a $15,000 grant from Toledo-based ProMedica, a national health-care system. With that funding, relationships have been formed with local university labs and new equipment integrated into the high school science curriculum. More importantly, a new standard now places college-level scientific research within reach of our high school students. The results have exceeded expectations.

The achievements of senior Abigail Berk exemplify the possibilities. Already a strong science student, Abigail took full advantage of the course to conduct research that led to poster presentations at two science events, a TEDx talk later this month, and her dream college acceptance: admission to the highly competitive biomedical science program at The Ohio State University’s College of Medicine.

The course – officially known as “The Honors Scientific Research Class in Partnership with ProMedica” – was the brainchild of biology teacher Jeremy Nixon. His proposal eventually caught the eye of the ProMedica Foundation.

“The goal was to find a way to bridge the gap between the local research community and our students,” Mr. Nixon said. “I wanted our kids to be able to walk into the college interview of their dreams and say they had experiences that set them apart even more. And it’s working as planned.” The class is being offered again next year.

Abigail BerkPerforming the early behind-the-scenes matchmaking was the Ottawa Hills Schools Foundation. “True to its mission, this is an example of the Foundation enhancing and extending our unique experience of excellence,” said Superintendent Kevin S. Miller.

To celebrate the first-year achievements, Mr. Nixon and the students are organizing an April mini science fair at ProMedica headquarters.

The idea for the course began about a decade ago when Mr. Nixon was a student himself in a six-week summer program for high school science teachers. That class helped teachers better understand how professional science labs were run and the research equipment and techniques used in them. He was assigned to Bina Joe, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Toledo’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. Under her supervision, Mr. Nixon conducted experiments and learned more about the process of scientific inquiry. The time spent with her and in the lab ultimately resulted in a peer-reviewed, published research paper of his own – and desire to one day introduce those opportunities to his students.

About a year ago, Mr. Nixon presented ideas for such a class to fellow teachers and district administrators. To give students maximum flexibility, he wanted to create a very student-centered learning experience – giving them freedom to choose labs and projects that matched their interests. Unlike national Advanced Placement (AP) courses that are designed around an exam, an honors course generally offers teachers more flexibility on grading and objectives. “With this class, we’re teaching more for experience and not toward an exam,” Mr. Nixon said.

With input from colleagues, Mr. Nixon eventually submitted a formal funding request to the Ottawa Hills Schools Foundation. Foundation staff sought potential matches with donors interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) projects.

Even without a donor, the class was going to be offered in the fall of 2018. But ProMedica’s timely support made immediately possible two longer-term goals of Mr. Nixon’s course: purchase of modern lab equipment and creation of a student research fund to underwrite unforeseen costs associated with projects.

The equipment, while purchased specifically for the course, is available to any biology student at Ottawa Hills High School. The new pieces are a T100 Thermal Cycler (which makes copies of DNA for further analysis) and a Gel Doc EZ Imager (which allows for easier imaging of proteins and DNA in gels for further analysis). Both are standard items in labs conducting biology-based research, Mr. Nixon said. The equipment manufacturer, Bio-RAD, gave the district a discount on the equipment and two of its textbooks. The grant also was used to purchase a refrigerator for storing samples and a freezer capable of storing items at minus-25 degrees Celsius.

During the first months of the class, students toured labs and met researchers. While those labs were all oriented toward biology research, Mr. Nixon foresees other types of labs (such as those conducting chemical-based experiments) being a match with future students. In addition, students used the first couple of months to find, read, interpret and present findings from published research papers – often written by the same scientists whose labs they were visiting.

Students still can conduct their own research with the equipment, even if they do not find a lab match. Being able to accurately and safely use the equipment is an important skill to have when seeking internships or applying to colleges. “Without knowing the techniques ahead of time, the labs won’t want us there,” said Abigail.

The students visited many labs, including those of Song-Tao Liu, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Toledo. (Abigail eventually teamed up with her.)

Before enrolling in the course, Abigail already had an interest in scientific research inspired by the breast-cancer death of her mother in 2016. She began to read about the genetic origins and triggers of certain breast cancers. With that knowledge, she chose to write her 35,000-word Junior English Project last year on CRISPR, a technology that allows scientists to edit human genomes. She mentioned that research and her passion for studying cancer in her college application essays. “This class has worked into my goals for high school and propelled me toward my goals in college,” Abigail added.

The experience has also benefited the other inaugural students:

  • For Junior Priya Bhatt, the work has generated opportunities for her to present her work at scientific events, including the recent District 2 Science Day March 1. She also is one of 24 students from Ohio presenting a paper at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at Bowling Green State University this month (as is Abigail). But perhaps most importantly, her work in the course helped her gain a coveted slot in the Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute’s High School Internship Program in Integrated Mathematical Oncology program. Moffit is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic and is a top cancer hospital worldwide. Priya will spend most of the summer in Tampa, Fla.
  • Similarly, senor Connor Pellegrini has parlayed his scientific research into a peer-reviewed journal article.

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