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School programs show teens where fusion of engineering, biology can take us

Updated: 2013-09-24T15:16:12Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Life forms beamed to Earth by probes on Mars?

Pandemic-fighting vaccines emailed at light speed around the world?

It was as if Blue Valley North High School senior Muriel Eaton was a 5-year-old girl again, wide-eyed in a universe where everything seemed possible and amazing.

She and about 50 other high school students from across the Kansas City area were listening to science world rock star J. Craig Venter’s tales of where the fusion of biology and engineering is taking us.

Synthetic food? No more exhausting resources to raise cattle and hogs? The end of agriculture as we know it?

When she was 5, Muriel watched a tarnished penny dropped in vinegar, and then out it came, shiny like new.

“I said, ‘Is it magic?’ ‘No. It’s science!’”

When Venter talked of how DNA’s code of life — the four nucleotides represented as G, A, T, C — can be converted into a computer binary code of zeroes and ones, she and other students said they felt the same amazement.

“He started synthetic biology,” said Muriel, 17, who wants to be a molecular biochemist. “He’s changed one species into another. Things I do on a computer, he did it in the lab.”

Fast-changing industries in Kansas City that are starving for the next generation of thinkers need students to feel the thrill, said Tom Sack, the interim chief executive officer and president of MRIGlobal, which invited students to hear Venter at its annual dinner earlier this month.

“We need people in the intersection of information technology and the sciences,” Sack said. “We need engineers who can build that work. How better to get kids excited than to meet someone like Dr. Venter?”

Venter has been a dynamic and sometime controversial force in science. He may be best known for leading a team that was the first to sequence the human genome. He also helped create the first cell with a synthetic genome.

The digital and biological worlds are interchangeable, he told the Kansas City audience of scientists, researchers and students.

“All life is a DNA software system,” he said. “We are DNA-driven cellular machines.”

These real-world visions “are the sparks that change students’ lives,” said Susie Helwig, a science teacher at North Kansas City High School.

“He turned the world upside down,” Helwig said of Venter. And that was why she brought 17-year-old seniors Yareli Hernandez and Aubrey Eubanks to see him.

Hernandez, who wants to be a neuroscientist, and Eubanks, who wants to be a surgical physician’s assistant, said the future possibilities in science and engineering seem limitless.

Environmentally friendly cement that does not emit carbon dioxide? Synthetic viruses that can attack deadly E. coli?

“If he can do that, imagine what I could do, or another scientist could do,” Hernandez said.

“There’s always another problem to fix,” Eubanks said.

Yuanhui Feng, an 18-year-old senior at Shawnee Mission West High School, already was interested in genetics and fighting cancer when he went to see Venter.

“It’s amazing. He’s modified cells,” Feng said. “He looks at genes as a binary code. It’s given me more ideas to change genes, to change cancer cells.”

Science education needs to do more to inspire that kind of creative energy in students, said Steve Case, the director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas.

“We are on the cusp of a really dynamic working environment,” Case said. “But a lot of kids don’t understand what we (scientists and engineers) do. They’re just told it’s a good job.”

The setup for would-be scientists is right in the Kansas City area, Sack said. Growing industries wait for graduates from strong area colleges and universities — but enrollment in the science and engineering fields is down, he said.

Case said schools need to build on programs that immerse students in projects that reveal “really interesting and exciting work that gives training in flexible and adaptive thinking.”

Consider teacher Joe Whalen’s molecular medicine and bioengineering class at Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies. The Blue Valley students who went to see Venter already have gotten a taste of lab work in synthetic biology.

Muriel Eaton and 18-year-old senior Alec Adams were revisiting last year’s project with diagrams on a whiteboard. They detailed how they selected a gene from rabbit muscle for its rapid production of the pyruvate kinase to insert into cyano bacteria — and made a biofuel more efficient.

Meanwhile, this year’s students in goggles and white lab coats were learning electrophoresis, passing light-coded DNA fragments through a thick gel to separate them by size.

They are putting their hands on the tools that connect to the kinds of innovations Venter imagined and are “seeing the potential in the world they’re going into,” Whalen said.

“Engineers talk about the ability to tinker,” he said. “They see how things are and they build.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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