Jennings High School students gain summer lab experience at UMSL

by | Aug 10, 2016

Project Lead The Way placed the teens in UMSL labs where they researched everything from avian malaria to circadian rhythm in fruit flies.
Jennings High School students (from left to right) Trevor Gillespie, Paris Siggers and Angel Cole wrap up their last week in the UMSL and Project Lead The Way summer intern program running extracting DNA from avian blood samples and running PCR to see if the malaria parasites is present. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jennings High School students (from left) Trevor Gillespie, Paris Siggers and Angel Cole wrap up their last week in the UMSL and Project Lead The Way summer intern program extracting DNA from avian blood samples and running PCR to see if the malaria parasite is present. At right, Amadi Muse Morris, the daughter of Jerome Morris, Des Lee Professor of Urban Education, also participated in the program. (Photos by August Jennewein)

For more than a dozen Jennings High School students, the first day of school this week wasn’t their first day back in an academic setting.

Thanks to a collaboration between the high school and the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Jennings’ students spent the last six weeks of summer in UMSL laboratories alongside some of the university’s top researchers. And they didn’t just get to watch.

Paris Siggers, a senior at Jennings High School this year, loads a gel with avian DNA during the last week of her internship at UMSL. Siggers spent the other weeks in Assistant Professor Michael Hughes' lab studying the genetics of circadian rhythms.

Paris Siggers, a senior at Jennings High School this year, loads a gel with avian DNA during the last week of her internship at UMSL. Siggers spent the other weeks in Assistant Professor Michael Hughes’ lab studying the genetics of circadian rhythms.

“It was my first time working with DNA,” said Angel Cole, 16, who is starting her junior year at Jennings this fall. “I was nervous at first, but then the more I did the pipetting and working with the gel, the more comfortable I got.”

Cole tested 196 DNA samples from birds in the Galapagos Islands, helping Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies Patty Parker determine which native and non-native species carry the avian malaria parasite responsible for recent extinctions in Hawaii.

It’s the second year of hosting Jennings students at UMSL, an effort that Parker initiated. As an advisory board member for Project Lead The Way at Jennings, Parker wanted to help bolster PLTW efforts.

A nonprofit organization, PLTW supports innovative K-12 STEM education through pathways in computer science, engineering and biomedical science. It provides participating schools an activity-, project- and problem-based curriculum for students and offers professional development and teaching tools for educators.

Jennings High School offers both PLTW’s engineering and biomedical science paths to its students. Sharing resources, especially the lab spaces in the brand new Science and Learning Building at UMSL, is one strategy that helps inspire students to pursue STEM fields.

“These are strong and mature students,” Parker said. “They know what they want to do, and they’re passionate about it. One of my favorite parts, aside from the detailed science experiences the interns are having in the individual labs, is our Friday morning career counseling sessions where they interview successful practitioners of career paths of interest.”

Guest speakers have come from Monsanto, National Geospatial Agency and medical professions. That’s something of particular interest to Cole, who intends to become a pediatrician one day.

Gillespie, Siggers and Cole double check their process as they load a gel with avian DNA before testing it for the presence of the malaria parasite.

Gillespie, Siggers and Cole double check their process as they load a gel with avian DNA before testing it for the presence of the malaria parasite.

Class president and senior at Jennings, Trevor Gillespie, 17, also appreciated the networking opportunities. He conducted research in Associate Professor of Biology Bethany Zolman’s lab for a second year.  Gillespie examined plant genetic mutations and their effects on growth and root development.

“I looked at the Arabidopsis, which is like a cabbage-type plant,” said Gillespie, who took high school honors biology this past year. “Mutations resulted in things like longer roots, larger leaves or discoloration.”

Gillespie has an interest in agricultural business and intends to go into ROTC.

“This experience has taught me to take advantage of opportunities presented to you and to do things with deeper meaning,” he said. “Whatever I do in life, I want it to be meaningful and impact people.”

Another member of Jennings’ senior class, Paris Siggers, 17, worked in Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Hughes’ lab. She helped with research on the genetics of circadian rhythms, specifically examining the gene CG17386’s affect on Drosophila  [fruit fly] activity. It was her first time ever dissecting a fly, she said.

“I thought I was going to stab it! I didn’t know how I was going to dissect something so small, but we put the fly to sleep and put it under a dissecting scope. I actually came to enjoy it.”

Besides biology labs, students have opportunities to study with chemists, physicists, anthropologists and psychologists as well.

The UMSL/Jennings summer PLTW partnership program, funded by a generous anonymous donor, accepts 20 paid interns each summer.

“$12 an hour internship in high school is a good deal for me,” said Gillespie with a smile.

For more information on Project Lead The Way click here.

The UMSL Experience

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Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez

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