Student Scientists do Real-world Research

Lowell HIgh science teacher Heather DeJonge checks out one group’s tank of daphnia, commonly known as water fleas. Next to DeJonge, from left, are Brenan Conlan, Jacob Nugent and Holt Sawyer
Lowell HIgh science teacher Heather DeJonge checks out one group’s tank of daphnia, commonly known as water fleas. Next to DeJonge, from left, are Brenan Conlan, Jacob Nugent and Holt Sawyer

If the experiments going on in the laboratory of Heather DeJonge’s Lowell High School research class look like they could be happening in a true scientific context, it’s because they actually are.

In one corner on a recent Monday morning, Marlon Coe feeds a tank of zebrafish being bred to test for fetal alcohol syndrome and ultraviolet radiation exposure.

“We put the eggs in a concentrated alcohol mix to see how it affects their development,” Marlon explains. “So far they have just died, so we need to do some adjusting.”

Nearby, George Gonzalez Jr. skims a net back and forth inside another tank to scoop up three of the fish, which he transfers to a breeding tank in hopes of providing more eggs to test.

George may well just be the perfect man for the job. He envisions himself a DNR officer someday, he says, or something in natural resources and fisheries.

Across the room, Dawn Kondor is working in the name of Parkinson’s disease, peering through a microscope while she uses a heated glass pick to lift and transplant C. elegans worms from one plate to the next. After that, “it’s basically watching them poop,” Dawn says.

Katie Cussimanio and Abigail Kastanek have set up T-shaped cardboard mazes on the floor, into which they each plunk a pair of rats, to see if they can teach them episodic sight memory of a feather and a pencil.

“The experiment we’re building on did the same thing with smells,” Katie explains.

Senior Scientists

In DeJonge’s Lowell High School class, what students learn can affect research going on right now, she said. Her class is partnering with the Van Andel Institute to study neurodegenerative disease.

She also recently formed a partnership with Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Research Institute, which will allow her students to attend and maybe even present at undergraduate conferences. And one of her students, Brianna Roest, will spend a trimester this year as an intern there.

The research class got its start in 2015-16 as an after-school club. An official class was created through the partnership the high school has with the Van Andel Institute’s Van Raamsdonk Laboratory. The institute’s Employee Impact Campaign fund provided some $22,000 in equipment the students use, DeJonge said.

The Lowell High class, which is largely composed of seniors, requires students to have passed chemistry and biology, and includes engineering concepts.

“This is truly a STEM class where they can use all their skills,” she said, “and I just want to provide them opportunities to do real-world research. It’s really awesome for me to see their enthusiasm and their dedication.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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