Friday, July 6, 2012

Making new proteins: DNA, bacteria and synthetic biology

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the first of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working. 

Joshua George works in Dr. Gomelsky's molecular biology lab during SRAP in June.
How do you make something that doesn’t exist?

That is what Joshua George and Mayu Garcia are learning this summer. As part of Dr. Mark Gomelsky’s lab, they are working on making synthetic proteins to regulate the behavior of bacteria such as E. coli and Listeria.
“Basically we take a piece of a gene from one organism and a piece of a gene from another and try to make this synthetic gene that will make a chimeric protein that doesn’t exist in nature,” Dr. Gomelsky explains. “They (Joshua and Mayu) are making one particular synthetic module which we envision will ultimately allow us to regulate pathogenic bacteria.”
This type of protein engineering is used in models of disease to better understand what certain genes of pathogenic bacteria do in their host organisms. 
This sounds complicated, right?
It is, and that is where Dr. Gomelsky sees the greatest value of the SRAP program. “You get somewhat frightened young adults who don’t understand much of what you’re telling them and are scared of everything pretty much,” Dr. Gomelsky says. “And at the end of the program, you have somebody presenting a PowerPoint to their colleagues, convincing them of the importance of their work and describing complicated methods to achieve the experimental goals.”
Helping to empower students is part of what brings Dr. Gomelsky back to the program year after year. He started his work as a mentor ten years ago, in 2002. “I just heard that there was such a program and I thought 'this is a great idea and we should be engaged in it',” he says. “I think this is something that all professors should be doing.”
Because SRAP is for a broad range of high school students, including those who are underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, Dr. Gomelsky believes that programs like it are the key to improving STEM education in the US. Young students have to be exposed to the STEM fields in order to become involved in them, he says.
Dr. Gomelsky’s experience with SRAP has proven that programs like this are life changing and valuable. One of his very first students went on to complete his undergraduate degree at UW, working in the same lab in which he had conducted his SRAP research. Today, this student is a co-author on one of Dr. Gomelsky’s papers and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska. He has gone from being a nervous, high school student to a colleague and a co-author.
“Perhaps more important than building confidence in their research abilities is building confidence in their abilities to succeed in challenging environments,” says Dr. Gomelsky. “They learn that they can succeed.”
Joshua and Mayu were new to protein engineering when they first stepped foot in Dr. Gomelsky’s lab. Half way through the program, they look like naturals in their lab coats and goggles. They have an air of confidence and comfort about them as they work on the tasks at hand.
This is the best part of being a mentor for Dr. Gomelsky. “My favorite part is to see the growth in students’ abilities but more so in their confidence in themselves.”

~by Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credit: Kali S. McCrackin

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