Biology Students Pursue College-level Research

April 22, 2019 / Andrea Wenger
Destin Witmer presents at the 2019 James Madison University Biosymposium
Destin Witmer presents at the 2019 James Madison University Biosymposium

Eastern Mennonite High School biology students have the opportunity to pursue independent research under the direction of Dr. Wendy Stapleton, biology teacher, in conjunction with area universities.

The research often begins in a scientific research methods course where students learn to design and implement their own scientific study, explains Stapleton. The projects require students to come up with relevant research to add to the current knowledge in the field.

Students then begin their independent study by initiating contact with area university faculty. Or, they communicate with other researchers in the field via email and phone in order to have a mentor that specializes in their particular topic area. All of this happens with Stapleton’s guidance.

This semester, three students are working with area colleges: Abby Stapleton ‘20, Destin Witmer ‘19 and Aaron Moyer ’20.

Stapleton and Witmer are working in the lab of Ray Enke, PhD, assistant professor of biology at James Madison University. They presented their research at the 28th annual Bisymposium at James Madison University, April 11 and 12.

Abby’s research
Abby is studying the role of hydroxymethylation (a recently identified type of DNA modification) as an intermediate in the demethylation process (removal of a methyl group from a molecule) that allows genes to be expressed.

She has been working with chicken retinas in order to apply these methods to donated human tissue through a recently funded grant. Epigenetic modifications — modifications on a cell’s DNA or histones that affect gene expression without altering the DNA sequence — are important in regulating gene expression, explains Dr. Stapleton.

Destin’s research
Destin is studying Chronic Wasting Disease, also known as “Zombie Deer Disease,” which is in a group of similar diseases that also includes mad cow disease. Deer in our local area have recently been identified with the disease, so it is important to plan for an effective response, explains Dr. Stapleton.

Destin is using local deer samples to analyze DNA and determine susceptibility based on the presence of genetic polymorphisms (genetic variations) previously identified as showing association with Chronic Wasting Disease.

Several JMU faculty members commented on both EMHS students’ advanced level of research, noted Dr. Stapleton. “Their research is both novel and applicable. At the age of 16 and 18, these students are already contributing to the advancement of our scientific understanding in important and relevant areas.”

Both students will continue their research over the summer at JMU in the lab of Dr. Ray Enke.

Aaron Moyer at Eastern Mennonite University
Aaron Moyer ’20 completed research this year at Eastern Mennonite University and presented his research as part of the university’s Academic and Creative Excellence fair at a poster session April 18.

Aaron performed DNA extraction and sequencing in order to determine if the CRISPR system is being used in a DIY kit that can be purchased by the general public. The claim by the seller is that gene editing (CRISPR) can be used by the purchaser in their own kitchen to edit the genome of E.coli to confer resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin. However, the same phenotypic change could be made by a simple transformation of a plasmid containing the resistance gene. Aaron has developed a technique to determine whether the genome of the bacteria has been edited to cause the observed phenotypic change.

CRISPR is being used for many purposes, explains Stapleton. Much research is being focused on being able to use the system to cure diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease that are caused by a change in the DNA. “Aaron’s study focuses on the ethical side of things, inquiring whether should CRISPR be used by the general public when the ramifications still remain largely unknown.”

Other research
Past EMHS student research has included work with Sigma, a biological products company, with Dr. Louise Temple at JMU’s ISAT department, and with Ray Stapleton, PhD in microbial ecology at JMU.

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