Welcome to the Biological Age

By Lance Braud.
Dr. Gita Bangera, biology and genomics instructor at BCC, is serious about promoting science among students. So much so, she’s put together ComGen, a way to bring hands-on research to community college students. The problem with promoting science, however, is that the number of interested students is small. “So that is where we start,” says Bangera.
The grant is based on bringing the latest technology to students and letting them actually experience being a scientist. “I felt like I was a scientist for the first time when … my professor didn’t know the answer to what I was working on. We were finding out the answer together.” That is the experience she is bringing to students at BCC.
Working in partnership with the USDA, her program studies a bacterium that protects wheat from a devastating fungal disease called Take-all that causes root rot. The research done in Bangera’s lab will actually be used to find a solution to this real-world problem.
That is one of the appeals for her students. “You read about this equipment in books, but this is real world experience,” says John Dougherty, one of Bangera’s students. “We’re using sophisticated equipment here. You don’t see that everywhere.”
Actually, BCC is one of the first community colleges in the country to offer a program like this, “a mini-graduate school” experience. And the students treat it that way. It’s the only class she’s seen where students actually come back after finals to continue to do work in the class. Sometimes, says Bangera, students will stay so late into the evening she has to tell them to “go home.” The class is rewarding for the students, but to see this kind of enthusiasm is rewarding for Bangera too: “It’s worth all the work.”
The heart of the class is the genetic analyzer. It’s a simple-looking beige and glass box that is small enough to fit on a table. But its unassuming shape hides its amazing ability to automatically read a DNA molecule so accurately that it can distinguish between two different pieces of genetic material that differ by only nucleotide. That’s impressive when you consider the human genome has three billion base pairs.
This kind of analyzer is often used in forensic analysis, giving the authorities the ability to identify criminals from a fragment of DNA. Bangera hopes to offer a class in forensic analysis in the future. She’d also like to get students involved in the project at a lower level. “Even if they are not science majors, they could be a part of it in a Bio 160 class or a seminar course.” She also envisions promoting BCC’s summer science camp (run by Dr. Jim Ellinger, ComGen Co-PI) where middle schoolers will extract DNA. Right now, BCC students can sign up for Laboratory Methods in Genomics to get their own first-hand experience in analyzing DNA.
The next phase of the project, says Bangera, is to take it on the road. “We’ll take what we’ve learned here and show others how to do it.” Dr. Karla Fuller , Director of BCC’s Science And Math Institute (SAMI) has already helped to connect ComGen with an advanced high school in Queensland, Australia that will paralleling BCC’s work in the future.
“The next hundred years is going to be about biology,” says Bangera. Dr. Leroy Hood, the inventor of BCC’s genetic analyzer, echoed that sentiment at his recent talk on BCC’s campus when he said that what we’re learning in biology is going to transform more areas of scientific knowledge than any other single disciple, from agriculture, to computing, to reengineering the human organism to live on different planets. Although, Hood said, that last one may take a bit longer than 100 years.