CAMDEN, Maine — Fourteen juniors and seniors from the Watershed School spent last month researching whether any of them had genes associated with athleticism.
The DNA research in the biology class was one of the hands-on projects that exemplifies one of the strengths of the private school located in downtown Camden.
Watershed Director Will Galloway said the school not only designs its curriculum to be hands on but in a way that is meaningful to the students and community.
“We’re embedded in the community and linked to the broader needs of the community,” Galloway said.
In the spring of 2014, students researched how Camden could become carbon neutral. The students issued a report “A Carbon Neutral Maine by 2050: What would it take?” In response, the town revived its energy committee and is looking at those recommendations.
Watershed has 26 students in grades nine through 12. The 12-year-old school is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
The DNA research project was the result of a teaching fellowship that Watershed instructor Phil Gerard had at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. The Jackson Lab conducts genome research with the aim to identify the genetic and molecular bases of disease, according to its website.
Gerard said this generation of students will be the first in which genome research will become more and more part of health care.
The Jackson Lab provided Watershed with the equipment for the biology students to conduct DNA research. The students used their saliva for the DNA samples. They extracted the DNA, purified it, rehydrated it and amplified it through an incubation process known as polymerase chain reaction using the machines loaned to the school by Jackson Lab, the school stated in a news release.
An important part of the project was discussing the ethics of genetic research. Gerard pointed out in the release that students would not get bragging rights about who had the genes that indicated they could be a gifted athlete.
The sequencing of the genes was done by the Jackson Lab and the results sent to the school. The results of the DNA testing on the students were anonymous. Gerard said the Jackson Lab paid for the sequencing, which is an expensive process.
“The nuances of our growing understanding of gene activity and of risks associated with certain genotypes can be difficult to convey, even to adults. For that reason we’ve decided that our students shouldn’t have to deal with any form of predetermined health information,” Gerard stated.
The class discussed the ethics of genetic testing and agreed they did not need to know whether they had the gene indicating athleticism.
Only one student from the biology class ended up with two copies of the endurance gene. That gene produces a protein that plays an important role in blood pressure regulation and electrolyte balance, he said.
Gerard said he cautioned his students that this endurance gene was only one piece of the large biological puzzle that determines athletic ability.
“Science has revealed that most genetics are not Mendelian, where one gene is dominant and another is recessive. We’ve learned that most traits come about from a complex interplay of many genes, many genetic regulators and, as importantly, the environment,” Gerard said.
Student Jesse Snider of Belfast said in the news release he had always been more of a history student but that Gerard’s teaching ignited his interest in science.
“We do a lot of hands-on work, which is great because for me the concepts in science were always the hardest part if you can’t do anything with the information. I prefer making things happen,” Snider said.
Science is not the only subject where students work with the community.
Galloway pointed out that the history class work has been tied to the upcoming Camden Conference, which will focus on Africa. Students will participate in the conference and have become quite knowledgeable about the subject, he said.