CRISPR course unleashes critical-thinking skills for UAB freshmen

CRISPR course unleashes critical-thinking skills for UAB freshmen

June 14, 2017
By Jeff Hansen
Students in UAB's Science and Technology Honors Program explore the unknown through gene-editing technology.

Freshman courses are generally foundational — introductory rather than groundbreaking. That's certainly not the case with the hands-on course in molecular genetics led by Anil Challa, Ph.D. This spring, the research instructor in the UAB School of Medicine's Department of Genetics led 16 freshmen in the UAB Honors College Science and Technology Honors Program through a series of experiments using CRISPR/Cas9, the molecular genetic "scissors" that are revolutionizing fields all across the scientific community.

The students targeted unexplored portions of a gene known to act in eye development — mutating the gene using CRISPR and analyzing the consequences on protein sequences in zebrafish.

“In high school and your general chemistry labs in college, they give you some sort of procedure to follow, and you should always get a pretty good result because they are ‘easier’ labs,” says Cerissa Nowell, a freshman double-major in neuroscience and genetic/genomic sciences. “But with Dr. Challa’s lab, you could follow the procedure to a T and get a different result than you expected because the organism ‘fixed itself,’ or the mutation might have been so small that it didn’t make a difference.”

Learn more about the course in this story from UAB News.


crispr class 1 750Cerissa Nowell (right) shares her findings with a classmate and Anil Challa. Nowell is a double-major in neuroscience and genetics and genomic sciences. “I knew before college that I wanted to do research in the genetics field, but this class confirmed my love for it," she says. "I really like seeing what can happen when the genome is altered a bit, and learn what makes an organism that specific organism.”

crispr class 2 750Jordan McGill prepares his pipette to transfer an aliquot. Course-based exposure to hands-on research can serve greater numbers of students than the model of a single student/single research mentor, and students get to discover whether they have the research bug. “The students self-select whether to go on to a mentorship,” says Diane Tucker, Ph.D., a UAB professor of psychology and director of the Science and Technology Honors Program in the UAB Honors College. “I see it as a win/win.”

crispr class 4 750John Gotham (right) and Challa monitor progress on the team's experiments. “These kids are really good, very excited,” Challa says. “They come so eager to learn — that’s the trait one needs.”

crispr class 5 750"This class felt like I was doing real science," says Victoria Miller (right), a freshman biomedical science student. "My work actually contributed to a measurable, valuable outcome."


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