HERE COMES SUMMER: Sophomore controls “roboroaches,” analyzes DNA and uses photodynamic theory in Biotech course

Sophomore Allison Zhang (front row, second from the right) with her lab group at Laney College during a field trip.

“Y’all are such koalas,” I said to the friends I had just made at the National Student Leadership Convention (NSLC). We were deciding where to eat dinner, and no one had an opinion.

I got a weird look from a passer-by. However, at NSLC, we were separated into animal categories based on our personalities, and the koalas were known as the agreeable ones.

I was taking a class on biotechnology, July 31-Aug. 7, at UC Berkeley.

NSLC has sites at 10 universities around the U.S., including American University, University of Washington and Yale University. The program offers a range of courses from Sports Management to Forensic Science to Theater.

The four courses held at Berkeley were Engineering; Journalism, Film & Media Arts; Medicine & Health Care; and Biotechnology.

There were about 400 students at Berkeley, and a little under 100 in the Biotechnology course.

All of us in the Biotech program were together for the leadership lectures and labs. However, for the most part, we were split into groups under a Team Advisor (TA). There were seven TAs, and all were college students.

Dominick, our TA, was an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh. There were 15 of us in the group, but we were split in half while we worked on the Biotech Incubator. The Incubator was a group project where we created a product that utilized biotechnology and pitched it “Shark Tank style” to the TAs.   

Our team proposed using photodynamic therapy with fullerene particles to treat glioblastomas (tumors). This would work by injecting fullerene particles, molecules composed of carbon, into a patient’s bloodstream. After a few hours to a few days, the fullerenes would leave the bloodstream but remain in the tumor. Red light would then be shined on the tumor, and the fullerenes would produce a form of oxygen to destroy the tumor.

One girl in our group, who had done research with her parents about photodynamic therapy and fullerenes, suggested this topic.

Before settling on that topic, we brainstormed other potential ones.

We thought of isolating the gene in lizards that regenerates body parts and applying that to regenerate organs in humans. Another idea was to harvest solar power from space and then use lasers to transfer that energy back to Earth.

Besides the Incubator projects, we did four basic labs involving DNA analysis. We went to a big lecture hall before each lab where our instructor, George Cachianes, analyzed the previous day’s data and explained that day’s lab.

These labs were all done at Laney College, a community college about a 20-minute drive from Berkeley. The labs at Laney were better suited for us, because they were set up to teach undergrads.  

In our first lab, we isolated the DNA from our cheek cells and put it in a small vial attached to string, thereby making a necklace with our DNA in it.

We also did a lab where we were given DNA from four suspects of a crime and DNA from the crime scene. We learned how to use enzymes to cut DNA and then run it in a gel in order to separate the different-sized pieces. By comparing the sizes of the pieces, we were able to tell which suspect was at the crime scene.  

Another lab was the enzyme-linked immunosorbance assay (ELISA) testing for the presence of a specific antigen. When testing for human chorionic gonadotropin, ELISA is better known as a pregnancy test.  

However, we did do a few activities at Berkeley, including creating a “roboroach.”

This lab involved attaching electrodes to a live cockroach to send impulses down its antennae. The cockroach would think the impulse was its antenna touching a wall, making it turn away. This way, we could control the cockroach’s movements.

Before working with the cockroaches, we had to submerge them in ice water, which acted as a form of  anesthesia.

(Photo used by permission of Zhang)
 Zhang with George Cachianes, who instructed NSLC students in their labs.

While working on live cockroaches wasn’t appealing, it was so cool to operate on a live insect and see it work in the end.

We also toured two biotech research facilities, Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and Gladstone Research Institute, both located in San Francisco.

Our time in San Francisco wasn’t all spent on work, though.

One evening, we visited Pier 39, and another we spent at Fisherman’s Wharf.

When I first received the schedule, I was shocked to see that almost every day there was a 90-minute “Leadership Series” session. The website mentioned very little about leadership; it focused on the biotechnology aspects of the program.

I guess I should have expected it; after all, it is the National Student Leadership Conference.

The Leadership Series was held by Mike Walsh, vice president of the California School Boards Association, who gave speeches about creating a vision for our future and learning to communicate.

Walsh, a funny and engaging speaker, gave us activities to teach us about becoming better leaders.

One night, we took a quiz to determine which animal our personality corresponded to: a lion, a koala, a peacock or an owl.

The lions are the controllers. They like to be in charge, and they are often strong-willed and confident.

Koalas are easygoing and agreeable, and are good listeners. However, koalas often hide what they really feel.

The peacocks are talkative and creative but want a lot of attention.

An owl, which is what I tested to be, is organized and faithful but can be reserved. (I expected to be an owl, but was surprised to see my score for lion was significantly lower. I thought I was a mix of lion and owl.)  

One activity was the Bomb Shelter, which tested our communication skills.

Walsh told us to imagine that a nuclear bomb had gone off, and that each of us was was in a bomb shelter with 10 strangers. However, the shelter would support only six people for the month that was necessary for the radiation to disappear, so we all had to decide to sacrifice five people.

And since the bomb shelter was in my house, I had to decide which people to sacrifice.

Walsh gave each of us a paper with descriptions of 10 people. The description were of the people’s skills and personality, with a both desirable and undesirable traits. Then he told us to find a partner and reach a consensus on whom to sacrifice.

We got into groups of eight and had to decide whom to sacrifice. The groups grew bigger and bigger until there were 50 of us trying to reach

a consensus.

(Photo used by permission of Zhang)
Zhang (front row, fourth from the left) with her TA group. Her TA Dominick is in the front row in the yellow hat.

The goal wasn’t to determine whether or not we should sacrifice Billy or Janice. It was to learn to communicate in a big group of people who all had different opinions.

The goal was to teach the lions and peacocks to stop standing on chairs and screaming orders and give the koalas and owls a chance to speak. It was also to teach the koalas and owls to speak up and let their opinions be heard.

Because I consider myself a owl-lion hybrid, I was among the lions in this exercise, yelling for everyone to be quiet while I, too, was adding to the noise.

NSLC was very different from other summer camps I’ve been to. While other camps tried to teach students as much information on a topic as possible, NSLC was more laid-back and had the leadership aspect that I didn’t get anywhere else.

At NSLC, I got a good understanding of what my life would be like if I pursued a career in biotechnology. I met researchers, learned some basic lab skills, and toured research facilities.

Am I going to create more bionic arms from plastic children’s toys? Probably not. Am I less squeamish about working with cockroaches? Not really. Do I know every possible argument for and against sacrificing the mechanic instead of the psychologist? Absolutely.

By Allison Zhang

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