Student Features

PA Cyber students test own DNA in lab day at PSU Behrend

Apr 22, 2015

ERIE, Pa. – “Two men were fishing in a boat …”

What sounds like the first line of a joke in actuality describes the beginning of a friendship and professional relationship between Mike Giles, a PA Cyber Charter School science teacher, and Dr. Michael Campbell, chairman of the biology department at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

One result of that chance meeting on a Lake Erie fishing charter is that for the past three years, Dr. Campbell has hosted groups of PA Cyber biology students at his lab on the Penn State Behrend campus. He leads them in a lab exercise in which the students test their own DNA for a gene specific to the ability to taste, or not taste, a certain bitter substance.

The experiment is called “Using a single-nucleotide polymorphism to predict bitter-tasting ability.” It involves the students in hands-on lab techniques including swabbing their own cheek linings to collect cells, extracting and amplifying the DNA from those cells, and identifying the gene for bitter-tasting ability using gel electrophoresis.

Before doing the DNA part of the experiment, students and several staff members tried tasting the bitter substance, phenylthiocarbamide. Fifteen out of 19 said they detected the bitter taste. Giles said because the tasting gene is dominant, and the non-tasting gene is recessive, 25 percent of a population are expected to be non-tasters. 

 “This is one of the most complicated labs that high school students would ever do. Most students wouldn’t see this lab until their sophomore year in college,” Giles said.

Some 14 PA Cyber students attended this year’s lab day on April 10. Some traveled from as far away as Philadelphia and stayed overnight at an Erie hotel, where PA Cyber hosted a dinner for participating students and their families on the evening before the event. Most are students in Mr. Giles’ bioinformatics class, with others from biology and AP biology classes.

Participating students this year were Abigail Becker, Emma Bowlin, Victoria Colich, Logan Harris, Levi Hunt, Calah Jones, Shayma Musa, Morgan Myers, Andy Myers, Angela Severino, Emily Shuttleworth, Alexis Snedeker, Joshua Snedeker and Valerie McNulty.

Kelly Hammond, a dean of PA Cyber’s grades 9-12 Academy, had high praise for Mike Giles’ enterprise in arranging the event.

“It was great to observe this group of students participating in such a unique experience.  It was also nice to know that students had fun getting to know each other at the festivities the evening prior to the lab. I appreciate all the hard work everyone did to put this event together,” said Hammond. She traveled to Erie to observe lab day along with two other academic deans, Danielle Summerville and Ian Docherty.

Carley Castelli, AP biology teacher, was a chaperone and assisted students during lab day. Jane Camp of Family Link coordinated the hotel and dinner arrangements, and also helped during the lab event.

For many students, especially cyber students, performing biology experiments “in silico,” (in a computer) instead of “in vitro” (in glass) forms their predominant laboratory experience. Giles said participation in hands-on activities such as the DNA lab day at Penn State Behrend is important for students considering careers in the biologic sciences.

…And as for the fishing trip where Giles and Dr. Campbell first met? 

Giles caught the biggest fish of the day, everyone took the limit in Lake Erie perch and they enjoyed a big fish fry at a friend’s house. Nothing bitter about any of that.

Dr. Michael Campbell (standing) leads teacher Mike Giles and PA Cyber biology students in the DNA lab day experiment.

PA Cyber Bioinformatics teacher Mike Giles assists student Victoria Colich in preparing a DNA sample.

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About PA Cyber

Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.