The samples for testing to solve the mystery were placed in "Confidential" envelopes.

Middle school girls interested in science tried to deduce “whodunit?” during a week-long activity complete with a conspiracy theory and a surprising discovery about one of their clues, a DNA sample. EEB graduate students Kevin Amses and Anat Belasen led the WISE GISE genetics focus group for their fourth year in a row.

WISE stands for Women in Science and Engineering, GISE for Girls in Science and Engineering. The annual WISE GISE Summer Camp took place the week of June 17, 2019. Students learned about genetics while testing their mystery solving skills.

“We said the samples they were working with came from a kidnapping victim who made it back to her family, and each sample would help solve the mystery of who took her and where she was taken,” explained Belasen. The samples were placed in envelopes containing mock police reports stamped "Confidential.”

Kevin Amses guides the students as they visualize DNA on a gel following gel electrophoresis, confirming a successful PCR. Image: Anat Belasen.

“They got really into it and developed all sorts of conspiracy theories about how Kevin was involved in the kidnapping. Turned out that a ‘hair sample’ that was supposedly from the kidnapper matched cat DNA instead of humans, so I played into their conspiracy by showing them pictures of Kevin with his cats.”

The young scientists learned how to analyze genetic samples using a standard molecular protocol that Amses and Belasen use in their own research:

1. Extract DNA
2. Amplify gene of interest (PCR)
3. Confirm amplification (gel visualization)
4. Sequence the product
5. Analyze the sequence - compare it against GenBank to identify the sample

Amses said, “My favorite part about doing this camp each year is just being a part of this experience for the girls, one that they genuinely seem to enjoy so much! It's always a lot of work leading up to it and I think both Anat and I are biting our nails a little bit hoping that everything is going to go smoothly – but it always ends up being very rewarding and so much fun. I think back to my summers in middle school where science camp is not what I would have wanted to be doing, and it makes me realize how special these students are. To see how excited, energetic, interested and motivated these girls are to do science-y stuff – and devise conspiracy theories – at 9 a.m. ... well, it's just really cool to be a part of that.”

“For me, the best part is seeing the girls' confidence grow throughout the week,” said Belasen. “They start knowing they're smart maybe, but they doubt their own competence in doing scientific research. By the end, they are able to see that they CAN perform a molecular protocol, which is really impressive because it puts them among the ranks of starting undergraduate students! Believing that they can do it is a huge part of building their confidence and helping them become more resilient as they grow as women in STEM.”

The students created designs with genetically modified yeasts that glow red, green and yellow. The glowing genes are used as a “reporter gene” for tracking genetic manipulations done by researchers. Image: Anat Belasen

Their activity always ends with a cookie decorating party, using DNA and chromosome patterns in the designs. This year, they held a “symposium” for each group to share their findings about the sample they analyzed while they munched on cookies. “It was really impressive and their presentations were very professional,” said Belasen.

Participants apply for the camp and rank their choices for focus groups, which are held each morning, Monday through Friday. They attend a different activity each afternoon – some of the ones their groups attended were chemistry, coding, soldering and circuitry.

Amses and Belasen used a previous curriculum the first two years. Last year, when they realized that it focused on concepts the girls would learn in high school biology (Mendel, mitosis and meiosis, etc.), they updated it. “We wanted to create something new that they wouldn't normally learn about in school, so we switched it up last year. We turned it into an inference-based learning course about genetics research. We also made sure to include photos of women of diverse races and ethnicities and highlight the contributions of women genetics researchers.”