Westridge AP Bio Research to Expand to Schools Across the U.S. with National Science Foundation Grant
Posted 05/09/2018 01:00PM

Above: Students in Dr. Ryan Skophammer's class direct the evolution of typical bakers’/brewers’ yeast by treating it with an over-the-counter drug that’s used to cure nail fungus. 

Westridge’s AP Biology students are conducting original research in a year-long experiment in partnership with the University of Washington (UW). Students have been working since October 2017 to create antifungal-resistant “super-yeast” and analyze their samples’ genetic evolution with the assistance of researchers at UW. Long-term, open-ended research conducted by entire high school classes is extremely rare and the project inspired UW researchers to seek National Science Foundation funding to expand the experiment to other high schools across the U.S.

“Dr. Maitreya Durham [UW associate professor of genome sciences who worked with Westridge on the lab] was excited to see high school students having this kind of laboratory experience, which she believes can inspire more young people to pursue careers in science,” said Ryan Skophammer, Ph.D., who teaches the AP Biology course and developed the research project. The grant includes funding to survey participating students regarding their attitudes about science, careers in science, and interest in evolutionary biology.

In the experiment, students are directing the evolution of typical bakers’/brewers’ yeast by treating it with an over-the-counter drug that’s used to cure nail fungus. At the beginning of every AP Biology class period, students perform a “transfer,” during which they add antifungal to the yeast media in test tubes. Results at the end of the year will be dependent upon each team’s decisions regarding quantities of antifungal introduced, and the goal, ultimately, is to create a strain of yeast that is resistant to high doses of antifungal and could continue to grow in its presence.

“We’re used to doing small experiments [in science classes], but this is an ongoing project,” said Summer G. ’19. “And it’s not just out of a textbook; it’s unique to our class. I don’t think this has ever been done before, so there are no guidelines and we could really take it in any direction. There’s so much freedom to discover new things.”

The UW collaboration started long before students began their research. During the summer of 2017, Skophammer traveled to Seattle and tested various over-the-counter drugs with Dr. Dunham and Dr. Bryce Taylor, a postdoctoral fellow in her lab. After the yeast had been evolving for two months, Skophammer sent frozen samples to Dr. Dunham’s laboratory, where researchers identified the genetic changes that had occurred. Back in Pasadena, Westridge students received a curated list of those changes, then used online databases to determine which mutations they thought were contributing to the yeast’s resistance to antifungal, learning about genetics, genomics, and protein structure along the way.

“I think this partnership [with the University of Washington] helps us realize that what we’re doing can be applied in the real world, that this is how real scientists work,” said Caroline R. ’19. “When you’re genuinely cultivating something alive and growing, it helps you see so many connections between the concepts in a book and the real world.”

Skophammer developed this experiment as part of Westridge’s Faculty Professional Development and Renewal Program, through which faculty members create personal projects to further their learning and professional development, and to contribute new research or additional skills to the community. Skophammer said his original idea was to “turn AP Biology into a research lab,” providing students with the experience of doing the same work occupational research scientists do every day.

Skophammer said that the students have developed a large dataset that will be of interest to anyone studying evolution. He is planning to attend the Yeast Genetics Meeting at Stanford University in August to talk to more “yeast people” about the experiment and to discuss future directions for the project. “I want to keep this experiment going for future classes,” he said, “but it could go in so many different ways. What if we started from scratch and did the same things, giving the students free rein to change the concentration? Would we end up with the same changes after we sequenced the genome? Or, what if we started next year’s class off with the evolved strain from this year? Is there a limit on how much antifungal we can get the yeast to grow in?”

Thanks to the new National Science Foundation grant, other high school biology students will also look forward to evolving "yeast baby" experiments of their very own – more news to come as Westridge students set the stage for inspiring budding scientists all over the country!