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Paul VI students conduct college-level research

The familiar mantra that high school will prepare you for college is perhaps best seen through the Directed Independent Study (DIS) course at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax.

Under the guidance of Paul VI science department chairs Michael Potter and Eileen Liberti, student Hannah Fulop kick-started the program four years ago with a self-designed experiment to cultivate fruit fly cells. Liberti said Fulop’s research was “all so new but so much of it we could easily expose high school students to on a smaller scale.” This year, the program has grown to give four students the opportunity to delve into a variety of biology-related independent projects.

Potter and Liberti guide students through a systematic process of advanced research and Paul VI helps provide students with various professional contacts. Some students perform parts of their experiments at outside labs specific to the needs of their particular study. Previously, a student worked at a biotech company to expand her research on antibodies. This year, juniors Camila Gutierrez partnered with a veterinary clinic to aid her study on culturing multiple cell lines, Catherine Bare is using a Soxhlet extractor while working with soybeans, and Kristine Tran is infecting various lung cell samples with vape oils to explore their harmful effects.

With so many students working with multiple cell lines, each was trained in special sterilization procedures to avoid cross contamination. Paul VI has a Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) laboratory with appropriate equipment to perform tissue cultures, as well as sophisticated microscopes and storage units. All DIS students are able to earn tissue culture certifications. Recently, the school’s lab made two additions: a gas chromatograph and mass infrared spectrometer. These supplements expanded the range of experiments DIS students may undertake.

Since the beginning of the program, Potter and Liberti have introduced students to these types of advanced equipment in the hope that they will be better prepared for future studies. New courses such as dual enrollment anatomy/physiology allow students to dive even deeper into college-level science. Anyone who comes into the laboratory room will also be greeted by live mice and fruit flies, which are available to students seeking to undertake experiments with live subjects.

Biology and science experiment procedures are not the only thing that DIS students are able to take away from this experience. Since not everybody can use the lab at once, communication among the students is essential.  

“Lots of cooperation is required — who uses the lab when, and when we all need to come in for meetings,” said Tran. “It has taught me how to communicate with other people I’m sharing the lab with, and I think that will be super important in college.”

 At the end of their experiments, students prepare research papers detailing their experiment and results, give a presentation to a panel of faculty and administrators, and answer questions, similar to research presentations in college.

Not all of these experiments yield the results the students are seeking, but they don’t need to.

“Science is not about things going perfectly, science is about learning along the way,” said Liberti.

Potter summed up the purpose of the program in saying that, whether the expected result is obtained or not, “Either way, you’ve learned a great deal.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020