Gone are the days of at home chemistry kits and crystal growing sets — these days, students are getting involved in research that has potential to change the world.
This past week, Utah State University hosted 19 high school students from around the nation at Biotech Summer Camp. The camp, which pairs students with USU professors and graduate students, lets aspiring scientists work in real labs on real research questions.
Two of these students were Crystal Vejar from InTech Collegiate high school and Wesley Cook from Skyview high school. Their mentors were John Carman, a professor in plant science, and David Sherwood, a graduate student in Carman’s lab.
Carman, who is a professor in plant biotechnology, said the camp brings the finest students to his lab.
“It’s really impressive to see the level of competence that these students have,” Carman said.
He and his students are working on developing crop plants that, while naturally reproducing sexually, are altered to produce offspring through apomixis — or by making clones of themselves.
“Seed are formed without the need to be fertilized, so they are genetic clones of the mother plant,” Sherwood said. “It has great value because you can perpetuate hybrid plants by just saving the seed and replanting them. We’re studying the mechanism behind that so that we can engineer it into crop plants.”
Sherwood explained that the researchers are currently looking for a stress signal from the plants, which lets them know if the plant is reproducing sexually or not.
The importance of this research is plants that reproduce through apomixis may increase global crop productivity by one third, effectively feeding an additional billion people.
Students attending the camp weren’t just there to watch this research happen. Instead, they jumped right in.
“We’ve worked with making plant and bacteria medium, and that requires measuring out hormone and sugars…and we’ve been involved with watching them take pictures with the microscope looking for the GFP, which is green florescent protein, to look for stress signals,” Cook said.
“We’ve started to learn a lot about how careful you have to be to not get germs in anything,” Vejar said. “We’ve been learning a lot about how to measure stuff with scales and micropipettes”
On the last day of camp, students presented their research to their peers.
Vejar and Cook say that this experience has changed their perspective of research and college life, and that they will likely return next year as advanced students.
USU’s biotech camp is in its 13th year and continues to be one of the few camps of its kind in the nation.