The Far Reach of the Upper School Fly Lab

The Far Reach of the Upper School Fly Lab

On a winter morning, Upper School Science Teacher Elaine Pan distributed white boards and colorful markers to pairs of students sitting around the tables in Room 804, otherwise known as the Fly Lab.

“Are you ready to discuss errors and solutions?” asked Ms. Pan, who serves as Coordinator of Scientific Inquiry and Laboratory Research. “Pick the top three most influential errors you need to fix in the next round to boost your chances for success.”

Binders open, the students turned to a troubleshooting document they had completed earlier on which they detailed various problems with their fruit fly (Drosophila) experiments, hypothesized why each issue occurred and offered suggestions for fixing it. After they filled up the boards with their most vexing missteps, the class discussed each one.

This proved to be another enlightening and productive conversation for the Class 11 and 12 students in “Learn to Fly: Research in Molecular Biology,” a high-level course that was established several years ago through Chapin’s partnership with Dr. Seung Kim at Stanford University and the groundbreaking international consortium he founded called Stan-X. Chapin is a proud member of Stan-X, which introduces students in both public and independent schools to experimental research using the fruit fly. This tiny insect, known for annoyingly flitting around overripe produce, is prized in laboratories for its easily manipulated DNA code and an ability to reproduce quickly.

What’s more, the fruit fly’s DNA is identical to 60 percent of human DNA and, thus, plays an integral role in helping scientists understand the complexities of diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum disorders and more.

Each student in Ms. Pan’s class, who completed an application and interview to be accepted to the year-long course, was tasked with generating and characterizing one novel fruit fly strain. The strain, which carries a unique mutation, is achieved by crossing individual flies from specific genetic lineages that carry the necessary biological components to allow for controlled, semi-random mutation, Ms. Pan explained.

Over the last several weeks, the students had been focused on characterizing their fly strain genetically through a process known as iPCR (inverse polymerase chain reactions) and sequencing. The objective of iPCR is to determine where this semi-random mutation occurred in the fly’s genome and what gene, if any, was affected by the mutation.

During this visit, the students had just completed their first round of iPCR and were brainstorming ideas to refine their technique for the next round. With the boards propped up in front of the room, Ms. Pan asked each group to talk about where their methodology might have gone wrong.

When one team ran into trouble with contamination control, for example, they planned to take measures such as tying their hair back, switching out pipette tips and changing reagents, which are substances used in chemical reactions. “Where did the DNA go?” another group wrote on their board. To solve this conundrum, these students outlined corrective steps like “pipette with caution” and “centrifuge please!” (A centrifuge is a device that uses centrifugal force to separate various components of a specimen.)

Looking ahead, the students will use the Fly Lab’s new epifluorescent microscope, the only one of its caliber at a New York City secondary school, to perform immunostaining and fluorescence microscopy, processes that help them understand how the mutation affects gene expression in their flies during the developmental stages.

At the end of the year, the information on each student’s novel fly strain will be sent to Dr. Kim’s laboratory at Stanford as vital contributions to the Stan-X partnership network. After being cataloged, the fly strains will eventually travel to the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center at Indiana University, a leading Drosophila repository that is relied upon by researchers all over the world.

For the last portion of this exhilarating class, these passionate young scientists put their goggles and gloves back on and returned to their intricate and far-reaching experiments, working with determination, curiosity and joy.