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 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.

Homer High students help alum with research remotely

Biology students at Homer High School recently proved meaningful research can be completed whether the participants are gathered in one room or not.

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 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 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.

Homer High School alum and researcher Ben Blue shows biology students an image from the WormBot, part of a project to study the aging process they helped him remotely with during their second quarter. (Image courtesy Vicki Lowe)

Homer High School alum and researcher Ben Blue shows biology students an image from the WormBot, part of a project to study the aging process they helped him remotely with during their second quarter. (Image courtesy Vicki Lowe)

More in News

Lydia Jacoby of the United States, sees the results after winning the final of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo / Martin Meissner)
Seward buzzing over Jacoby’s victory

SEWARD — An Olympic buzz permeates an Alaska coastal community thousands of… Continue reading

FILE - A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store Monday, July 19, 2021, in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Infections are climbing across the U.S. and mask mandates and other COVID-19 prevention measures are making a comeback in some places as health officials issue increasingly dire warnings about the highly contagious delta variant. But in a possible sign that the warnings are getting through to more Americans, vaccination rates are creeping up again, offering hope that the nation could yet break free of the coronavirus if people who have been reluctant to receive the shot are finally inoculated. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
CDC changes course on indoor masks in some parts of the US

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some… Continue reading

Alaska State Troopers and local law enforcement agencies in Ketchikan arrested a woman on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 in possession of more than a quarter of a million dollars worth of drugs at the Ketchikan International Airport. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Semi-truck crash marks fourth major car accident in 10 days

There was another vehicle accident on the Sterling Highway this morning, according… Continue reading

Resurrection Bay is seen from Seward, Alaska on Saturday, July 24, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
Seward approves construction of animal shelter

The Seward City Council approved up to $1,930,500 for the construction of… Continue reading

Alaska Senate President Peter Micciche speaks to reporters after a Senate floor session on the opening day of the second special legislative session on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy called the special session to address the budget. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
Per diems add up for lawmakers

State lawmakers could make more than $85,000 in per diem payments and… Continue reading

Daniel Balserak and Luke Konson fish for salmon in Alaska. The pair has been traveling the country and catching every official state fish for the past 11 months. (Photo provided)
A gap year like no other

High school graduates defer college enrollment to fish in every state

Hikers look at the Harding Icefield in August 2015 in Kenai Fjords National Park, just outside of Seward, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Hiker rescued from Harding Icefield Trail

A hiker was airlifted off of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai… Continue reading

COVID-19 cases are rising and health officials say new variants are spurring the increase, even among the vaccinated. But health officials note the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are occurring in unvaccinated people. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire file)
COVID-19 surge continues

‘They’re getting sicker this time around’

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Weekend car accident leaves 1 dead

Alaska State Troopers reported another car accident fatality over the weekend, marking… Continue reading

Most Read