Students research new ways to teach genetics

When students in Frankie Rose's biology classes are asked to finish all of their Brussels sprouts, they can say with scientific certainty why they dislike them, thanks to new teaching methods developed by Rose and a team of Union College students and alumni.

Dr. Rose, graduate assistant James Fernando and students Brad Carlson, Tim LeBard, Michael McCarthy and Fini Umali have spent the past year conducting original research in Jorgensen Hall. Their work integrates biology and pedagogy, establishing an effective laboratory experiment for small colleges to teach basic principles of genetics.

“A lot of people are predicting an oncoming tsunami of genetic information that will inundate all of us,” explained Rose. “With that knowledge in mind, I think about how I need to equip my students for their careers working with this information.”

Rose found no good existing student lab exercise that demonstrated messages about genetics well, so he embarked on a journey to establish one. “Genetics and genetic information is becoming more important in our society,” said James Fernando, a 2011 Union College graduate. “There’s a lot of new technology, and the cost of sequencing a genome has plummeted. It’s not just science students who need to be aware of all the emerging information, but everyone should have some genetic literacy.”

Fernando, a second-year medical student at Loma Linda, took a break from medical school to marry his wife Rachel, a second-year PA student at Union College, and oversee much of the footwork and literature review for the project. “I have to give a lot of credit to James,” said Rose. “He took a year out of medical school for a very modest stipend and has essentially been my right hand man in running the project. All the students flow through him, and it’s been spectacular.”

The journey began back in the spring semester of 2012, when Rose decided to create a lab exercise to demonstrate key principles of genetics for his small developmental biology class. “We isolated DNA and actually sent it to a company to sequence,” he explained. “The class loved it and said ‘why aren’t we doing this for more students?’” The test was very similar to Rose’s current project, only more expensive and took longer to process. Using the new method is much cheaper and gets results back in an afternoon.

The test looks at two genes from participants’ DNA. “One codes for a protein that is part of taste buds on your tongue,” explained Fernando. “We can take DNA from cheek cells and look for a single base pair change in that gene. Depending on what that one base pair is will determine if you can taste a certain bitter substance. Those with a change in their sequence can’t taste it and so are more likely to enjoy some foods like Brussels sprouts.”

The test is 80 percent predictive, meaning that a person with this change is highly unlikely to taste the bitterness. “It shows a fatalistic side of genetics,” said Fernando. “‘I have the genes, so I am a certain way.’”

The group wanted to contrast this message with another gene that codes for a protein in fast twitch muscle fibers. A single change within the gene will determine whether or not a person has a structural protein that holds muscles together. “Some people don’t have it at all,” said Fernando. “You’d think that, if you didn’t have it, there’d be some kind of a disease like difficulty walking, but that’s not the case. In truth, you can’t tell who has it or who doesn’t. Even in the Olympics there are some people missing the protein.”

The second test demonstrates a completely different lesson from genetics: that the course of one’s life is not determined solely by genes. “Basically, for this protein it doesn’t matter,” said Fernando. “You may or may not have it; it’s training that gets you to the Olympics. Genes alone don’t determine how athletic you are, it’s partly your choice.”

The tests display the range of importance that genes play in physical traits and scientists’ difficulties in understanding why. “Perhaps there’s another gene that turns it on, we don’t know,” said Fernando. “Contrasting the genes together shows students the complexity of genetics and gives them a glimpse at the spectrum of diversity.”

Genetic testing has the potential to reveal insights about a person’s predisposition to certain medical conditions, information that could be dangerous without proper medical counsel. Determined to avoid such difficult situations, Rose and Fernando were careful to choose traits to study that tell participants information about their own genome, but are not medically significant. “This is a safe genetic experiment, and you don’t learn anything dangerous about yourself,” said Fernando. “Genetic privacy is very important, and it’s something that people are very bad about. However, the results of this test have no medical bearing that the literature indicates.”

The students involved in researching the tests have benefited greatly from the lesson on genetics as well as the research experience. “I have gained a lot of knowledge about the inner working of DNA and single nucleotide polymorphisms (the single base pair changes that these tests assess) and also a huge respect for science,” said Fini Umali, a 2013 international rescue and relief graduate. “Learning how much time and effort goes into doing research has really opened my eyes, and I’ve gained a lot of lab experience. It’s given me many opportunities, and I’m more interested in integrating research into my future now.”

“I really enjoyed the research actually,” said Michael McCarthy, senior chemistry major. “It’s probably my favorite thing to do, and I do it too much. I went to work when I should have been studying, but I don’t regret it in the least.”

Not only does the experience help students’ resumes, but it aids them in their present college goals. “It’s expanded on a lot of information from classes,” said Brad Carlson, sophomore biology major. “It took what I knew about genetics and then blew it out of the water. There are also a lot of applications to this stuff in biology, which has definitely tied over into other classes.”

Rose hopes to continue expanding research opportunities for students at Union College. “I’d like to have as many undergraduates participating as possible,” he said. “Someone asked me why we do any research at all and not just focus on teaching, but science textbooks aren’t eternal like the Ten Commandments. Science isn’t just facts, it’s a process of discovering knowledge. I think it’s imperative to show students that process.”

“This experience definitely expanded my ability to think critically and communicate with other people,” said Carlson. “We continually have to take a situation, look at it and try to figure out what might have caused the problem. It’s been great, and I’ve learned a lot.”

“I’m actually doing something new and not just going through labs that others have done over and over again and that we know should work,” said McCarthy. “With any research, you’ll have disappointments, but you also get excited when things actually work out. It’s the real deal.”