From the JP Gazette: Students Complete Grant-Funded Biotechnology Lab at Meridian Academy

By Division 3 student Izzy

Originally published in the JP Gazette.

On a Tuesday morning in January, the father of one of my classmates sat us all down in our science lab to ask us questions that most of us could not answer. We didn’t know at the time that this was the beginning of an engrossing week of experimentation about biotechnology.

Biotechnology is one of the most helpful and impressive advances in science, in which genes can be cloned and proteins expressed for specific purposes. For example, the protein-digesting power of household laundry detergent often comes from proteins called proteases, and patients with diabetes are commonly treated with insulin, both of which are commonly produced through biotechnology.  In our class, we were going to clone the gene found in jellyfish that make them glow green (green fluorescent protein) and the gene found in coral that makes them blue (midorishi cyan fluorescent protein).

I should mention here that I’m in 10th grade. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to clone jellyfish and coral genes as a teenager, but that kind of work isn’t really uncommon at Meridian Academy, where I go to school. Our learning is often based in the surrounding community, and our teachers love including new technologies and resources in their classrooms.

On the first day of the lab, we divided into teams of two, snapped on our safety gloves, and started the long and meticulous process that would last all week. The lab required many complex techniques. We started with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which is a process of denaturing a double-strand of DNA by heating it up, adding a gene-specific primer, and then lowering the temperature to create multiple copies of the DNA sequence. On day two, it was time to test whether our efforts from the previous day had worked. Using a technique called agarose gel electrophoresis, we were able to tell if our DNA sequences had made successful copies. If so, we then moved on to the process of cloning the DNA into a construct known as a plasmid that would express the gene we copied. The next day, we all came in ready for the last day of experimentation, in which we transformed the plasmid into an E. coli bacteria, plated the results and then left them overnight. In the morning, we placed the bacteria under a black light and saw the bright green glow of the protein.

It was a true privilege to be a part of this five-day lab. Thanks to a grant from the Program on Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, we were provided with technology and resources that most teenagers never get a chance to even learn about. Students were able to see their hard work glowing brightly under a blue light at the end of the week, and it felt incredibly rewarding to know that all of the painfully specific pipetting and attention to detail had paid off. I came away with a new appreciation of both what biotechnology makes possible in the world, and how this complex field of science works. I hope that more students get to have this kind of classroom experience in the future.

Fitting Functions to a Bear: Trimester 1 Exhibitions

By Division 3 student Mara

Three times a year, Meridian students show the public the work they’ve been doing throughout the trimester. In each class, students present their projects and their peers’ projects to all sorts of visitors. As a new 9th grader at Meridian, I experienced my very first Exhibitions in early December.

In the weeks leading up to Exhibitions, we had a lot of work to finish, and I was specifically excited to present my Functions of Art project. For this project, we needed to create and fit algebraic functions to a work of art, and it was the first time I had ever applied math to a creative piece like that. For my project, I looked at a work of art called “As it Comes to Bear” by Venetia Dale and fit functions to create a bear like the one in the piece.

On the day of Exhibitions, I felt nervous but prepared. I had heard a lot about the event, but I was still not 100% sure about what to expect. It began with a performance from musicians in classes ranging from singing to composition to our school band. I was excited to hear all the original music that students wrote, along with new arrangements of songs that I knew well.

After the music, it was time to go to my classes and present my work. I was worried that I might not have anyone to talk to, but each room included many visitors, and they all wanted to hear from students about what we’d learned. During the evening, I was able to talk to several visitors and families, and it was a completely new experience for me to tell people I didn’t know about my work.

I also talked to other students about their projects, and it was really interesting to see and explore their learning and ideas. When I was in the art room, I talked with Jo, a 12th grader, about a shirt she had made in her Sewing class. Like my Functions of Art project, Jo had to apply practical skills to make this creative piece, and it was neat to see how projects in different classes can use such similar skills.

Exhibitions was really different than other presenting experiences I have participated in, and I’m excited to do it again in March!

The Mathematics of Activism

By Division 4 students Clary and Miles

Last trimester, the Division 4 Mathematics, Science, & Technology class, Mathematical Modeling, took on the creation of our very own ranking functions. A ranking function takes numerical inputs—like test scores or student:faculty ratios to rank colleges—and weights and combines them into a single output. Many ranking functions, instead of actually ranking multiple possible outputs, are designed with a threshold for making a decision, like whether or not you should call in sick to work. Working together, the two of us chose a politically relevant topic to model with our function: should you attend a protest?

Almost everyone has been frustrated about the political climate at some point, and it’s hard to know what to do with that anger besides push it down. However, sometimes it reaches a point when we need our voices heard, and we need a group of people who will yell with us. Once we’ve reached that point, and we hear about a gathering of that sort, we need to make a decision: do we go to the protest, or do we save our energy?

We brainstormed 20 variables that might be included in such a decision. Some were about safety: your race, your citizenship status, and the size of the group with whom you’d be going. Others dealt with convenience, like the weather and the location of the protest. We also considered how important the protest was. This last category we strived to measure quantitatively and objectively, so in the end we included the number of days until or since a relevant political event, along with a subjective measure of personal importance. We chose distance in minutes of travel and mode of transportation to address convenience. Personal safety is a different question for everyone, as we all have different factors that might make us safer or endanger us in an action of civil disobedience. Immigrants and refugees might be more concerned about potential arrest and people of color are likely to be concerned about potential police brutality. Everyone thinks about who they’ll be with at the time – after all, there’s safety in numbers. We decided on two variables: a measure of police brutality based on race, using statistics from the FBI, and group size to deal with safety. Of course there were many other variables that were worth considering, but these were the ones we started working with. With graph paper notebook pages covered in sketches of our functions, we designed and revised ways to weight these variables and the relationships between them.

One question that kept reappearing was how this score could really be effective for potential protesters, since in reality the biggest question is often the expenditure of personal time. Other work can be just as effective in bettering the world than these actions of raising our voices, which can often feel fruitless. Seeking the right combination of activism and anger is a true challenge. We weren’t able to touch on that, so this function is really just part of a larger question.

We created this function largely because it is of great personal importance to us. Both of us are politically active, but we frequently feel as though we aren’t doing quite enough. This function allows self-declared activists the space to step back from this kind of vocal work. We also specified in the paper that in no way should this function be treated as infallible or always correct. But, we think it’s a good place to start, and deliberating over our function gave us a deeper understanding of this all-too-common decision in these troubling times.

Click here and check out another paper on considering one’s role in solving climate change.

Secchi Discs and Plankton Tows: Division II Goes to Woods Hole

By 8th grade student Anna

On October 19, students in Division 2 got into a van and drove to Woods Hole in southern Massachusetts. Our teacher Tasha told the class we had to arrive at school at 7:45am in order to get to Woods Hole on time to accomplish everything we wanted. It was an early – and chilly – morning for all of us!

The first thing we did when we got there was go to the Zephyr Education Foundation, which was housed in a little building on the water, near the docks of Vineyard Sound. There, we met the host who would lead us around, and he told us about rules and expectations for our time at Woods Hole.

Then we stepped onto a large fishing boat, where we met the captain and the first mate before heading off. After going at full speed for about 10 minutes, we slowed down and cast off our first experiment. One of the first things that was deployed off the side of the boat was a machine with a camera that would be dragged along the sea bottom. The point of this was to see what the ocean floor looked like in that area and to examine different ecosystems. There was a TV inside the boat where we could see what the camera was seeing. First we saw lots and lots of seaweed, and then all of a sudden the camera went dark. The first mate and our host pulled up the camera, and it was completely covered in seaweed! They pulled it all off, and we went a little further. After going for a little more time, we hit huge waves (3 - 4 feet tall!), we slowed down and put the camera machine back in. We dragged it on the ocean floor a little longer but this time we could see that there were muscles and clams littering the entire floor.  

After we discussed the difference between two ecosystems, we decided to put a new device in the water: a net that would collect sea creatures. Some of the sea creatures we caught were huge sea stars and sea urchins. After being able to touch and look at the creatures, we threw them back into the water.

A little while later, we put in another device called a Secchi Disc. It looks like a black and white cookie, but split into 4 triangles, 2 black and 2 white. Connected to this was a long rope. The object of this is to figure out how far we could see into the ocean. We would uncoil the rope and drop the Secchi Disc into the ocean, slowly letting it fall until we couldn’t see it anymore. On the rope there were markings with numbers, and the numbers measured how far you could see down. My group’s Secchi Disc went all the way down until the tape showed the number 8 ft. This meant that light from the sun reaches 16 ft down into the water.

The last thing we deployed off the side of the boat was called a Plankton Tow. It was a long net, and at the bottom there was a tall cup. The plankton would go through the net into the cup and were caught there. We caught zooplankton, phytoplankton, and even some Comb Jellies!

After examining the plankton, we put them back into the ocean and made our way back to the dock. After leaving the boat, we went to a building with a lot of ocean touch tanks that held lots of different types of animals, including sea urchins, lobsters, horseshoe crabs, sea stars and moon snails. Then we went to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Exhibit Center where we got to see several exhibits, including one about the Titanic and how the scientists from Woods Hole were the ones to find it.

When we were done at the museum, we made our way back to the Zephyr Education Foundation building to have lunch. The Foundation had 3D augmented reality sandboxes. We got to experiment with the sand boxes for a little while and make all sorts of shapes and land features.

When we were done with that, it was time to go. We said goodbye and thank you to our host, got back into the van, and drove back to Meridian. All in all, even on a chilly day, this field trip was fun and adventurous!

Sharks, Seals, and M&Ms: Division II MST Explores Woods Hole

By MST teacher Tasha Greenwood

On Friday Oct 20th, students from Division 2 Math, Science, and Technology class took a field trip to Woods Hole on Cape Cod. This tiny town in Falmouth is most famous for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), one of the premiere marine research organizations in the world. We spent the day with an organization called Zephyr Marine Education, which focuses on bringing the experience of marine research and exploration to students from around the state.

We began the day with a two-hour “research cruise” with Zephyr staff, deploying instruments and collecting data in the same fashion as a professional marine science expedition. We deployed a mooring with a data logger to look at depth versus temperature and pressure. The mooring was eventually recovered via an acoustic signal, much like the types of sonar we have been studying in class. We towed a camera to check out the eel grass and sargassum habitats, and a dredge to collect creatures. The highlights from the dredge included a horseshoe crab, sea stars, hermit crabs, spider crabs,  and multitudes of purple urchins. We also towed a plankton net, and examined light attenuation through the water column with a fun experiment featuring M&Ms! Perhaps the most exciting wildlife encounter, though, was the group of seals hanging out on the rocks at low tide.

We ate lunch in the town of Woods Hole, and then made our way back to Zephyr to play with augmented reality sandboxes, upon which is a projection of topography that shifts based on your movement of the sand. You can add rainwater to fill lakes and oceans and create waves.

Our day ended with a tour of the WHOI Exhibit Center. One of the most exciting parts of the museum is an AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle), which was designated to record video of sharks in their natural habitat. However, the sharks ended up biting the AUV and there is footage of the entire encounter! Visitors can touch the actual AUV which is on display. There was also a replica of the deep-sea submersible research unit Alvin. We tried to fit all of Div 2 into Alvin but – even though we’re a small group – there wasn’t quite enough space in the tiny unit.

Back in the classroom, we analyzed data from various deployments and connected this information to what we have been studying in oceanography. As our learning progresses, these applications of marine research will be put to use in other projects, and culminate in the building of Sea Perches at the end of the year.

Skulls, Whales, and Darwin: Division II Explores Harvard's Natural History Museum

By Division I Media & Journalism reporter Phoebe

As part of their learning about evolution and biology this trimester, Division II took a field trip to The Harvard Natural History Museum in Cambridge. As science teacher Stephanie explained, the trip enriched the students’ learning throughout the year, which is focused on marine science. This covers both algebra and a variety of scientific subjects, ranging from ecology to conservation biology. They read Sean B. Carroll’s Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution and learned about how other scientists contributed to Darwin’s famous theory, as well as many examples of adaptations in different environments.  

During their field trip, students were granted special access to an area not open to the public, called the stacks. There, they looked at examples of evolution and how species and animals adapted to survive.

Students were also invited to see the collection held by the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Mammalogy department. They were greeted by curatorial assistant Mark Omura, who walked them through how scientists utilize the specimens for their research.  

They went to other exhibits also, including one on skulls. As students Emi and Juanzi described, “When you looked up, there was a giant whale skeleton above your head.” They said the trip was “exhilarating” and “fascinating.” By the end of the trip, students’ minds were expanded with all that learning -- you could even say they evolved!

Division 4 MST Applies Calculus to Model Infection Rates

In any learning environment, students rightfully wonder, “How does what we’re doing relate to the real world?” Meridian teachers strive to make learning relevant, and this fall, students in Ariadna Heinz’s Division 4 MST class grappled with a question that is both valuable and timely: How can we model rates of viral infection, and how will we know when and how many people will become infected?

To answer this question, students in our “Calculus, Physics, and Modeling” course developed equations that predict Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered populations, commonly called a SIR model. “Infected” people currently have the virus, “susceptible” people are not yet infected but could be, and “recovered” people have already been infected. What makes the project especially meaningful is its relevance to the real world; researchers depend on SIR models to understand viruses like Ebola. After an outbreak begins, they keep track of the populations over several days and then start preparing the community depending on how the model plays out.  

To identify the size of each population — and how that quantity could change over time — students needed to use differential equations, or equations that represent rates and include interdependent variables. For instance, how the infected population will change depends directly on the number of people who are currently susceptible.

Students had to create their own models of new settings that built upon what they learned from the standard SIR equations. In one group, junior Twyla and senior Haben decided to model the “Dancing Plague,” an epidemic that occurred in Strasbourg in 1518, in which the afflicted danced uncontrollably for hours or sometimes days. Twyla said that modeling a disease that actually happened — as opposed to an imaginary infection, like zombies — made their project both easier and harder. The Dancing Plague “was very poorly documented,” Twyla explained. “We had to create equations and then see how well they matched the results we were supposed to get, and then figure out where we went wrong when it wasn't what we wanted it to be.” Twyla and Haben also decided to scale their findings to a contemporary city: “Scaling our numbers up from 1518 Strasbourg to modern New York City was interesting,” said Twyla, “because it showed us where in our equations we couldn't support larger numbers.”

"The word I’d use to describe this project is ‘dynamic,’” said Ariadna, citing the complexity of working with differential equations. “It's really tough, but really satisfying."