With the help of a Yale geneticist, some New Haven-area high school students have been advancing the frontiers of molecular biology. For the past year and a half Yale geneticist Wesley Bonds Jr., Ph.D., has worked with the students from the Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden and their teacher to teach DNA sequencing. Since then the students themselves have gone on to teach sequencing workshops to teachers and other students, attended the International Conference on Gene Mapping and Sequencing and established what may be the country’s first high school gene bank.

“The students are getting a unique, hands-on introduction to modern molecular biology,” says Dr. Bonds, an associate research scientist in genetics. “DNA sequencing is the perfect way to introduce students to scientific experiments because it is repetitive work and can be easily evaluated.”

Sister Mary Jane Paolella, a biology teacher at the school, first became interested in teaching DNA sequencing to her students in March of 1997. She had read about a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle who taught high school students to sequence chromosome fragments. That researcher put her in touch with Dr. Bonds here in New Haven. The efforts of Dr. Bonds and Sister Paolella have been incorporated into a course on biotechnology, with 11 students this academic year. Those 11 students have learned to mentor students and teachers from urban and suburban high schools at the marathon sequencing days they offer twice a year. They are also part of the High School Human Genome Project, a miniature of the National Human Genome Project, which is working to map all of the 3.2 billion pairs of DNA molecules that comprise the human genome.

“The same sequencing theories and problems in finding a gene are identical to the national project,” says Dr. Bonds. “The students are doing the same things, but on a smaller scale with less equipment.”

DNA sequencing is a unique teaching tool, Dr. Bonds believes, in that it allows students to use current research techniques to understand biological systems usually approached in other ways. Because DNA sequences are now readily available over the Internet, Sister Paolella and Dr. Bonds believe that many other high schools should be able to involve themselves in genomics, even if they don’t have access to sequencing equipment themselves.

“Our hope is to get other high schools and universities working together to change the focus of high school biology,” says Sister Paolella.