Pitt DNA workshop leaves a mark on students

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

Thanks to DNA tests they conducted, nearly three dozen advanced placement biology students from Mars Area High School could soon learn if they're distantly related to each other.

“This really gives us a better understanding what it would be like to work in this field,” said Jimmy Ronczka, 16, of Middlesex, a junior.

The 32 juniors and seniors had to write essays to earn a spot among 90 biology students to take the trip from Butler County on Tuesday to two laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh's Langley Hall. There they used equipment and ran tests that students usually don't get to do until they are juniors in college.

Students took cheek swabs to obtain DNA samples and then ran them through a battery of tests to amplify the DNA through a polymerase chain reaction, which helps in forensic science, paternity testing, disease testing and other scientific methods. In essence, students will use the results to identify their own genetic fingerprint.

“This isn't just memorization,” said biology teacher Bill Wesley. “This is the real deal.”

A portion of a multimillion dollar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, administered by the Pitt Bio Outreach program, paid for the program. Pitt Bio Outreach's goal is to incorporate new science techniques into area classrooms.

“They're learning a lot about the forensic process,” said Becky Gonda, an outreach coordinator through the university's department of biology sciences. “They're seeing how what they've learned in class can apply to laboratory techniques,” including the ability to replicate DNA.

Wesley said the science of DNA has grown in the last 20 or 30 years, and where once there were doubts, the techniques students learned showed how far the scientific testing developed.

“It's like a fingerprint. If it's 100 percent certain, then it's you,” Wesley said. “You can't put any doubt on it.”

Students said there were no surprises as to how the tests were conducted, since they've been learning about testing in their high school classes. They added they were grateful for the opportunity for a few hours of hands-on testing and experience that few high school students get to experience.

“I kind of want to learn what scientists actually could do in the workforce,” said junior Brett Kloc, 16, of Adams, who is interested in chemistry or biology. “What could I actually do in real life?”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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