Homer High students help alum with research remotely

With Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students learning remotely until January, teachers have had to get creative. Biology students at Homer High School recently proved meaningful research can be completed whether the participants are gathered in one room or not.

Vicki Lowe teaches biology for all grades at Homer High, and is also teaching chemistry this year. As part of their curriculum during the second quarter, her students conducted a remote research project in conjunction with a Homer High grad who is now getting his doctorate at University of Washington in Seattle. Ben Blue had reached out to the school at the end of last year about collaborating, Lowe said. Things were a little busy at the time with the school launching into 100% remote learning for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she was able to connect with him for the fall.

“When I understood the project, all the light bulbs went off in my braid and it seemed like the perfect project for remote learning,” she said.

Blue works in the Kaeberlein Lab, part of the university’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. There, his research focuses on the underlying molecular mechanisms of aging, “and how to manipulate them in order to increase health span and longevity,” he wrote in an email.

Blue pointed to several diseases people in the U.S. experience, and how age is a major factor in their manifestation.

“Our hypothesis is that by targeting the underlying molecular causes of aging, we can reduce the burden of these diseases upon quality (and length) of life,” Blue wrote.

His work, which the Homer High biology students recently contributed to, involves using molecular biology and computer science to screen potential therapeutic compounds to determine their effects on the aging process, as well as the progression of certain diseases associated with age, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Blue uses Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of nematode, to conduct experiments. Lowe’s biology students spent the second quarter of this school year learning about the project, and contributing their own experiments to the research. The students selected compounds — from root extracts to wild Alaska blueberries — that they were interested in studying in terms of the effects they might have on the aging of the nematodes.

“They all picked their own compound that … might affect the aging process,” Blue said.

Blue set up a control experiment with the nematodes at his lab in Seattle, which the students were able to study remotely. They also got to study and compare the aging process of the nematodes once their desired compounds were used.

Sophomore Amber Gilbreth, who participated in the class and research, said she chose the extract of the ashwagandha root as her compound for the experiment. She was initially attracted by the unique name, she said, and was interested when she read more and found it has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes.

When comparing the control to the experiment including her chosen compound, Gilbreth said the root extract did seem to have some effect. In the control, she said all the nematodes died at a steady rate, dropping off at a certain point in time. When the root extract was applied, she said it appeared to steady the curve of that death rate.

Blue stressed that this type of research is in the very early stages. The goal is that, by focusing on the acute molecular causes of aging, and how they integrate into age-associated diseases, researchers will hopefully be able to find insights into slowing down the aging process itself.

“While my work is just the first part of a long pipeline of research that leads to anything potentially impacting human health, our ability to rapidly screen for the best effectors of aging in a simple animal model greatly improves the likelihood for positive results in mouse or more complex models,” Blue wrote in an email.

Lowe said the research topic lined up well with her own curriculum, as the state of Alaska recently adopted adopted new science standards based on the Next Generation Science Standards.

“And that really ask science educators to start out with things that allow students to bring back that wow factor and that excitement and that wonder of science,” she said.

For their part, the students handled the remote aspect of the research well, Lowe and Blue said.

“They’ve been rock stars,” Blue said.

Immersion into the areas of computer science and the science of aging on a molecular biology level are things some people in undergraduate studies don’t even experience, he said.

Gilbreth, too, noted how unique the experience was.

“It was really fun, and I feel like definitely it’s not something that a lot of high schoolers get to participate in,” she said.

More than educational for the students, the project proved fruitful for Blue’s research as well. The students worked with compounds that are of interest in this type of research, he said. They brought up things researchers might have taken for granted that could have a positive or negative health outcome. Their work is new data to be added to the research.

The students’ work, should it prove impactful to the overall research, could be included in an academic publication, Blue said. Should that happen, the students would be credited in that publication.

Blue said working with the students was also helpful in terms of “learning how to translate the research to an audience unfamiliar with it.”

Lowe said the students performed the remote research well, and that she’s excited they got to have this opportunity that students of their level rarely get.

“It’s pretty awesome for them to have access to a researcher in the field,” she said.

Blue was inspired to reach out to the school, he said, because of the education he received during his time at Homer High.

“I feel very lucky to have received the science education I did at Homer High School,” he wrote. “And working with Vicki to get HHS students into a (virtual) research laboratory after 10 years away from HHS was the highlight of the year for me.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

Ben Blue, a graduate of Homer High School and a doctoral student at University of Washington, shows Homer High biology students the results of a research project they helped him with during their second quarter. (Image courtesy Vicki Lowe)

Ben Blue, a graduate of Homer High School and a doctoral student at University of Washington, shows Homer High biology students the results of a research project they helped him with during their second quarter. (Image courtesy Vicki Lowe)