This year, Acera is presented with an opportunity to contribute to a landmark effort to combat cardiovascular disease called One Brave Idea. A joint effort by the American Heart Association, Google Health, and AstraZeneca, OBI’s goal is to rethink how cardiovascular disease is studied and treated. Together, the 3 companies awarded a $75 million grant to Dr. Callum MacRae, who is convening a diverse team of scientists across disciplines to study CV health and the earliest stages of disease.
Based on the premise that elementary and middle school populations provide a unique opportunity to discover longitudinal contributors to cardiovascular and metabolic wellness, Acera school is partnering with OBI. Over the next 3+ years, we hope to break new ground on our understanding of health and wellness in children and adolescents, and on how children can become active contributors to research, education and community engagement on cardiovascular health.
As a part of this project, I am developing and teaching a unit on skin microbiomes that will help us answer the following questions:
Can we develop a curriculum approach that enables Middle School students to successfully culture, sequence, and study their own skin microbiome in the lab, and make their findings reproducible and informative for research? Can we engage students in authentic learning on cutting-edge science in such hands-on ways, empowering them to develop a new sense of ownership in their own health? How do we explore how microbiome researchers collaborate with schools on such curricula as well as enroll students in broader studies?
To say that I am thrilled to be part of this innovative effort is an understatement. Not only is it an amazing opportunity but it fits in perfectly with where I wanted to go academically. My goal over the last few years has been to design a fully hands-on, inquiry-driven, biology course that teaches the scientific theory in the national standards for learning, but in a way that is congruent to how research is performed in today’s biotech and academic worlds. This proposed skin microbiome unit will give students a chance to apply their knowledge of cell biology and genetics, and merge it with evolution and natural selection, all by studying one bacterial biomarker: Propionibacterium acnes or pAcnes, the bacteria that causes acne.
We got hooked on pAcnes — could there be a better candidate to get Middle Schoolers interested? — through our partnership with Tami Lieberman, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT. Mentored by longtime Acera collaborator Eric Alm of MIT’s Alm Lab, Tami is starting a lab on facial skin microbiome research right now. Her recent work has involved looking at the transmission of pAcne and how it is able to colonize its hosts and evolve in response to a changing microbiome. She is highly interested in working with school populations, and shares our systems thinking approach: that there are important connections to be drawn between the microbiological specifics of p-acne strains and evolution, and adolescent culture and perceptions around acne, identity, and wellness.
At this point, I would love to delve into a lengthy discussion as to how pAcnes tie into cardiovascular health but I won’t because those links aren’t currently known; there is, however, emerging research that suggests they do exist. This presents an interesting opportunity for students to investigate a new field of study in which the “answers” aren’t known. In other words, this experience will allow them to act as researchers where their results can potentially help scientists and doctors develop a link between the somewhat mysterious skin microbiome and CV health. As a part of this project, I am developing a hands on module to teach natural selection that fits into other modules I have developed.
Working with Tami, we will be studying the natural selection and evolution of pAcnes. The bacteria is able to mutate as it colonizes its host; by comparing intra- and interpersonal isolates (cultures), scientists can trace its evolutionary lineage and investigate which pAcne genes may be used to help this process. There are plenty of dry lab modules that teach about classical natural selection but there is a dearth of wet labs available for this discipline.
To get to this point, the students spent the first half of the year working with CRISPR or RNAi systems, learning about cell biology and the central dogma of molecular biology (DNA encodes RNA, RNA encodes protein). These units also allowed students to develop the basic molecular biology skills including micropipetting and following kit-based procedures in a biochemical assay to purify reaction products (e.g. genomic and plasmid minipreps, agarose gel extraction kits, sensitive enzymes).
We used the Odin CRISPR or Carolina RNAi kits and retrofitted them to include additional negative controls and altered the experimental timelines to match our class schedule. These kits also allowed us to review transformations, sterility techniques, and the importance of selective media preparation. Some of my upper level groups also performed basic statistical measurements including averages, standard deviation, basic tests, and data interpretation through table and bar graphs. We also discussed documentation methods such as how best to save pictures from experiments so that we can easily access them when it’s time to write the lab report. Finally, we sent out purified PCR products from the RNAi experiments for Sanger sequencing and next, we will perform basic BLAST searches comparing mutant and wild type variants in the coming weeks.
I have wanted to do a project like this ever since I started teaching. I really enjoyed my decade as a working scientist and my long time goal has been to teach kids what it’s really like to be in that world. So few understand that world and my hope is that my students all know a bit about what the day to day life of a scientist is like. This project also presents an opportunity for students to have their work go beyond the walls of our school and potentially help scientists on the front lines of health and tech. We are all very excited and I will be blogging my exploits on here.