Students from five secondary schools, who have been taking part in a unique initiative to carry out genuine academic research projects with universities, will come together in their own ‘scientific conference’ to present their work and share best practice.
The scheme, which is supported by a Wellcome Trust Society Award, enables students to take part in research projects in their own school under the guidance of university researchers. Owing to the success of the pilot project Myelin Basic Protein Project, initiated four years ago by Dr Dave Colthurst at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, four more collaborations have been instigated this year between schools and universities in Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton and London. Students taking part in the scheme will present their work at the inaugural Authentic Biology Research Symposium on 17 December.
The University of Bristol, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton and Queen Mary (University of London) each selected a local school to work with. Each school receives a grant to pay for a senior teacher and senior technician to have half a day per week to run and organise their research project. The grant also enables the schools to buy basic laboratory equipment to run their project.
Supported and guided by researchers from the School of Biosciences at the University of Kent, students from the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys have been looking at the human protein myelin basic protein (MBP), which is a major constituent of the myelin sheath, the insulating layer surrounding nerve cells in the central nervous system.
They are studying the hypothesis that when this protein is modified in the myelin sheath, by the addition of phosphate groups to specific amino acids (phosphorylation), the structure of the protein alters. This then somehow triggers the immune system to send antibodies into the central nervous system to attack and break down the myelin sheath, which can lead to symptoms seen in conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
Over the past four years, the students have cloned the human gene for MBP and genetically engineered it into Saccharomyces cerevisiae, brewers' and bakers' yeast. Yeast cells have almost the same biochemical pathways as humans. The students have used this as a model for investigating what affects the structure of MBP. They hope to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed science journal.
Dr Colthurst said: "We aim to inspire students by giving them opportunities to work alongside scientists and take part in original, innovative research. When we started the project, we had 50 students taking part; this year we have over 170, demonstrating how popular it is among students. Four years in and we can already see the positive effects this is having: four years ago there were 90 students studying biology at A level, and this year there are 200."
Students from Tapton School in Sheffield will be working on genes linked to cardiovascular disease. Researchers at the University of Sheffield have studied patient populations in the region, and they have identified genes that may be associated with cardiovascular disease and that could help with the diagnosis and prevention of heart failure. The students will use original research data to learn how to interpret the function of novel genes from gene sequences and how to model the disease in zebrafish.
St Paul's Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, London, has a high proportion of students from a Bangladeshi background and students at the school are studying diabetes, which is very prevalent among this community. Working with researchers from Queen Mary (University of London) and a local medical practice, they aim to carry out a lifestyle questionnaire on the local population and then link this to a screen of possible candidate genes for the onset of diabetes.
Students at Peter Symonds Sixth Form College in Winchester have taken a different approach to their work. Academics at the University of Southampton have identified experimental approaches that can readily be transferred to the classroom setting and have assembled a portfolio of protocols encompassing invertebrate models such as the nematode worm and the fruit fly, retinal microscopy, and a computer-based visual perception study. Students at the sixth form have selected from these protocols to study topics including diabetes, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease and the evolution of the eye.
Cotham School in Bristol, which joined the initiative in September, is developing a programme that marries two major strengths at the University of Bristol - genome-wide association studies and cell biology - to investigate genes linked to arthritis and cancer, which are both pathologies associated with chronic inflammation. Their goal will be to learn more about these disease genes with cell biology studies in living zebrafish larvae, which are translucent and allow observation of cell behaviours in the living organism.
Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, said: "In the research world, scientific conferences provide the platform for scientists working in different places to present and share their findings. Based on this concept, the inaugural Authentic Biology Research Symposium will give students the opportunity to present their work as young researchers, learn new skills and experience a formal scientific meeting environment."
"We're delighted that the project has expanded and more students now have the opportunity to take part in this innovative collaboration. The Wellcome Trust has a long-standing interest in science education and is committed to helping make inspiring, high-quality science education available to all young people."