New course offers opportunities for students to conduct real research
Rock Canyon students seek funding for biotechnology projects
HIGHLANDS RANCH – You do not need to be a graduate student at a major university to study Alzheimer's disease, allergies or the impact of mobile devices on the human brain. These are just a couple of the experiments proposed by Rock Canyon High School students, who are getting a chance to be real researchers thanks to the expansion of the school’s biotechnology program.
In the new Biotechnology Research course, second-year biotechnology students are given a taste of what it is like to be a real researcher. They are expected to independently come up with their own research project, secure funding, conduct the research and then write a report which will be published in a new biotechnology journal being developed by Rock Canyon students.
“They all pick topics they are interested in. They found mentors that are experts in that field that can support them. These are all their decisions. They have driven it,” explained Rock Canyon biotechnology teacher Shawndra Fordham.
“Basically it allows us to design and ultimately do our own experiments with the help of our teachers and staff, as well as researchers from universities all across the United States,” added Rock Canyon Senior Brooke Galyon.
It is an unprecedented opportunity for high school students to see what it would really be like to be a researcher.
“If I want to do this for the rest of my life, it really puts it in perspective for you and it gives you the freedom to explore all these different parts of biotech that I really want to do,” Galyon said.
Galyon and her lab partner Allie Kellner decided to focus on Alzheimer’s disease. Working with Dr. Christopher Link, a researcher at University of Colorado at Boulder who works on degenerative diseases, the girls are investigating whether certain pharmaceutical drugs, as well as coffee, can decrease the impact of this debilitating disease, including the formation of plaque and paralysis, using C. elegans.
“What high school student gets the opportunity to study Alzheimer’s disease?” asked Kellner. “It is so exciting and so much fun to get to study this disease that has personally affected me and has touched so many other people.”
Kellner works at a senior living community a few miles from the school, seeing the impact the disease can have, first-hand.
“I have really gotten to know the people who are in the unit and see how the Alzheimer’s disease really takes away the quality of life and how it makes someone so confused,” Kellner said. “To know that you live your life to be able to grow old and tell your life stories to the people around you and your grandchildren and to know this disease can totally rip that away from you is heartbreaking.”
She says that she hopes this year’s project will only be the beginning of a career dedicated to finding a cure to Alzheimer’s which impacts 5.3 million Americans and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
“I definitely see myself continuing to study Alzheimer’s disease and I really do believe that someone needs to find a cure to this disease,” Kellner said. “This will give me a heads up above everyone else in college, so I can go into labs and be able to continue this research. A lot of other students do not even have this opportunity when they go to college.”
On October 23, the students will present their projects to the public, in hopes of securing funding for their research. Fordham says this is as authentic as learning can be.
“If you cannot communicate your ideas effectively, you will not get funded. You will not get the grants to do your research. That is critical,” Fordham said. “It is good for them to see it can be difficult. The writing part and getting grants and getting funded is hard. It can be stressful. It is important that they learn that now, before they decide to go down this path, which is what their career is going to be.”
“That is really what makes a great scientist, someone who can think creatively and is willing to take those risks and is willing to try new things and see what happens. It may not be perfect, but they are developing skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives,” Fordham added.
In addition to being an amazing opportunity for the students, Fordham says the new course has provided her with an opportunity to grow. She has had to learn how to be a coach, always there to support the students and provide insight, but allowing the teens to take the lead. She says the outcome has been amazing.
“The students are blossoming, they are doing amazing stuff,” Fordham said. “They are coming up with great ideas. Their research proposals are truly unbelievable. It is so far beyond anything I would have ever come up with. It is really exciting.”