Thirty Hawaii public high school students who opted to spend most of their summer break in school said they gained invaluable experience during a five-week research project focused on plant DNA.
As part of Waipahu High School's Biotechnology Science Scholars Program, students from Waipahu, Campbell and Kapolei high schools essentially became an extension of New Jersey-based Rutgers University's Waksman Institute of Microbiology for the summer.
The students worked in laboratories at Waipahu High to contribute to ongoing graduate-level research Rutgers scientists are conducting on the duckweed plant. The freshwater plant is of interest to the scientific community for its potential use as a biofuel source and in bioremediation, or the use of living organisms to treat pollutants and toxins in the environment.
Michael Sana, head of Waipahu's Science Department, who led the summer program, said students were tasked with identifying unknown proteins in duckweed and what their functions are through DNA sequencing analysis. The students then had to compare it to genes in other plant species.
Sana likened the experiment to the DNA testing by online genealogy companies that are growing in popularity — but for plants.
"The kids do authentic molecular research and their findings, their analyses are sent back to Rutgers and verified, and if they're correct, they get published in an international repository of all know DNA sequences," Sana said.
He added, "What's neat about this is actually working with actual research scientists on an authentic molecular biology research project that will help the scientific community."
The participating students presented their findings Friday during a showcase event with community members at Waipahu High.
Kapolei upcoming senior Chloe Salacup said the experience helped her decide what she wants to do after high school.
She's always been interested in the medical field in general but now wants to be a medical scientist or medical researcher.
"This kind of helped me put my mind into perspective and to see where I want to go in the medical field since there's like a lot of different jobs. I think the outcome was really worth it despite kind of spending our summer here for five weeks," she said. "It was a really special experience for me."
Waipahu Principal Keith Hayashi said he wants to see the program expanded to benefit more students and more schools. The Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation and Gear Up Waipahu helped provide funding support.
"This is one thing that we're really hoping to grow and hopefully to include other high schools so that Hawaii can be the leader in biotechnology nationally and internationally," he said.
About 50 schools nationwide contribute to the Rutgers research program, including schools in New Jersey, Maryland and California. Sana said the university informed him that the Hawaii research will be the first set published for the 2018-19 school year.