Life Sciences Today

Life Sciences Today

An anonymous donor has endowed a chair in life sciences, a popular field of study at St. Albans, where all Upper Schoolers take one year of biology and 72 percent opt for two.

We asked Science Department Chair Tom Carroll and a few of his colleagues why students embrace the life sciences.

“Biology today is like science fiction come to life,” says Carroll. “We have the ability to move genes from one organism to another in our lab.”

Advances in the field of genetics and in the tools available to biologists have dramatically changed what’s happening in high school biology. Says Carroll, who attended high school in the 1970s: “In my advanced biology class in high school, we did a little biochemistry and a little bit on genetics and the cell, but mainly we worked on a series of anatomical, evolutionary descriptions of the taxonomic ladder. We started by dissecting snails or clams and worked our way up to vertebrates. The ultimate experience of my high school biology class was a rat dissection.”

For today’s students, there’s no longer a one-directional big build up to a particular project or dissection. Rather, students follow a wide-ranging, complex narrative about life and living organisms.

At St. Albans the study of biology begins in earnest in B Form, under the direction of C-B-A science teacher J.T. Miller. The curriculum is entirely lab-centric (there’s no text book) a practice introduced by Miller’s predecessor, long-time C-B-A teacher Charlie Hatch. Projects involve anything from culturing bacteria to illustrating and writing an e-book about a plant in the Bishop’s Garden to animal dissection.

In Form II, Brian O’Malley incorporates biology into the environmental science curriculum. “Environmental science looks at the big picture in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics,” says O’Malley. “Rather than studying how atoms interact with each other or molecules interact to create a composition, we’re looking more broadly at how various systems impact living things—and how humans affect all of these systems.”
Biochemistry, cytology, genetics, taxonomy, plant and animal anatomy, physiology, evolution, and ecology—freshmen delve into all these topics in their required biology class.

In their junior and senior years, many students will revisit these topics in courses on biotechnology, vertebrate zoology, anatomy, or AP biology.

Says Tom Carroll: “We’re trying to tell a complicated story where students put together and synthesize material from several fields to gain a more complex understanding of the way life works,” says Carroll. “We feel strongly that kids need to have a working vocabulary in genetics to understand what the future is going to be like. Whether they become a businessman or a lawyer, the issues raised by modern genetics are going to continue to come up.” The class also covers health issues, drugs and alcohol, human sexuality, and the human body. “There’s nothing better to teach 14 or 15 year old boys than biology,” notes Carroll.

Says Kerry O’Brien, who teaches freshman biology and the more advanced biotechnology class: “The more I study biology, the more the world makes sense to me. As a teacher, I hope to help my students make sense of the living world and their own bodies. I particularly enjoy teaching genetics and human anatomy, partly because students love to learn about themselves–from how they have a genetically inherited widow’s peak, why lactic acid builds up in their muscles during track practice, or the precise location, in their digestive system, of the steak sandwich they had for lunch.”

Modern lab equipment makes much of this study possible. The biology labs have two thermocylers, used to perform the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which can create billions of copies of a DNA segment in a short amount of time. In forensics, PCR is commonly used in the process of comparing crime scene and suspect DNA samples. In addition, PCR allows medical doctors to detect genetic mutations that are associated with specific diseases. In advanced biology classes at St Albans, students take a swab of their own cells from inside the cheek and then use the thermocycler to copy, or amplify, the DNA. “We isolate DNA from each student and amplify a small section of chromosome 16 to look for the presence or absence of a certain gene, called a jumping gene because it can appear in different places of the genome,” says Carroll.

Students also use PCR to introduce cells from one organism to another (specifically introducing jellyfish genes to bacteria) and to test whether foods contain plant matter that has been genetically modified. For the latter project, students bring in a snack food sample, grind it into a slurry, extract DNA that can be replicated in the thermocycler, and then test for the presence of genetically modified DNA sequences. Students discuss how and why some foods are modified and delve into the ethics of GMOs. “Genetically modified food is just one example of how modern genetics is affecting our students’ lives,” notes Carroll.

The lab also provides classic tools like microscopes but with iPads attached so students may produce high-quality images and video of what they see through the lenses. After germinating lily bulbs, AP biology students use these digital microscopes to find the chromosomes in the roots. They are able to see the different stages of mitosis within the plants. “You could teach this lesson with prepared slides, but this allows the students to see where those images come from. The discovery is real, tangible, and their findings are less abstract.” Students also use the digital microscopes to create and share movies of amoebae and paramecia in motion.

The faculty agree that biology–and all the sciences—should be enjoyable, a lesson instilled in generations of St. Albans graduates by Alex Haslam, who taught Lower School science from 1957 to 2002, initiating the Lower School Science Fair in 1958. “Science is a human endeavor, and the Science Department believes that everybody should be able to do science,” says Carroll. “Biology should be fun and interesting; it’s accessible and part of their life.”

The department also wants students to appreciate the world around them and to be ever-aware of their effect on that world. Notes O’Malley: “I want our graduates to be far more observant about the small wonders in life than they ever were before. One lesson I teach early on is a concept known as the tragedy of the commons, which posits that humans, when dealing with shared natural resources, will pick short-term individual desire over the good of the whole, and everyone suffers. I want students when they leave here to stop and think about not only what is good for them but what is good for the whole—just like we talk about the hard right over the easy wrong.”
“I want our students to ask: What is good for the future? And how can I make that happen?” says O’Malley. Carroll adds: “I want our graduates to understand that there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered. And there are a lot of questions that still need to be asked.”

The recent STRIVE Campaign gift to the life sciences program will directly support students as they ask , and answer, questions relevant to the world in which they live. The Science Department hopes to expand its life science offerings, adding sections of biotechnology, offering electives such as genomics, and eventually refurbishing a lab devoted to biotechnology.