Chai Bio's mission is to make DNA Diagnostics accessible to anyone who needs it. So it was quite heartwarming to see Sarah Kern and Jillian Rathman, seniors at Conrad Weiser High School, finish as one of the top three finalists at the 2017 FFA National Agriscience Competition. Their project entry "Detecting Unlabeled Ingredients in Teas with rbcl DNA Barcoding" utilized Chai's Open qPCR instrument to conduct PCR experiments on tea samples.
My co-worker Lily Chen and I recently interviewed Sarah and Jillian, as well as their FFA adviser & teacher John Siefert, to learn more about the project and the agriscience lab at Conrad Weiser. The following are excerpts from our conversation, transcribed by Chai Bio.
(Conversation has been edited for brevity and clarification.)
LILY CHEN: We're here with John Seifert, an agriscience teacher at Conrad Weiser, and his students Sarah Kern and Jillian Rathman. John, Sarah, and Gillian, would you like introduce yourselves?
JOHN SIEFERT: Thank you so much for letting us join you. I am the agriscience teacher at Conrad Weiser. Conrad Weiser is a small rural school in Southwestern Pennsylvania and we only have 900 students total.
SARAH KERN: Hi, I’m Sarah and a senior here. I am planning on attending Penn State University and major in Wildlife Sciences.
JILLIAN RATHMAN: Hi, I am Jillian, and I have been taking agriculture classes since freshman year. I plan on attending a four-year college in Engineering after my high school graduation.
LILY: We would love to learn about your project and the FFA program at the school. Can you please tell us a little about it?
JOHN: Sure. My predecessor at Conrad approached the Agricultural program a little differently from a lot of Agricultural programs across the country. Rather than teaching Production Agriculture, which only 2% of the population is engaged in, we focus on food sciences, biotechnology, and environmental sciences. Embedded within the Ag curriculum is the FFA program. The National FFA organization is the largest student group in the United States. The FFA program aims to develop agriculture-related, hands-on career-ready skills for its members. That's the program that these girls went through. Sarah and Gillian participated in the contest held at the annual National FFA Fair. In the competition, there are six different categories, all related to agriculture: Plant Systems, Animal Systems, Environmental Services, Food Products and Processing Systems, Power, Structural and Technical Systems, and Social Sciences.
Their project was entered in the Food Systems category at the state level. If your project is placed first at the state competition, your entry is then eligible for the nationals. So a total of 50 projects (one from each state) enter the national contest within each category and only 12 out of 50 projects get invited to present at the National FFA Convention.
JILLIAN: When we were first trying to come up with the idea for the project, we started with the process that we wanted to use - DNA Barcoding. Then from there, we wanted to look more into food science. We considered studying meat, but decided on herbal tea. We selected the tea samples, crushed them up, extracted the DNA, then purified and amplified the DNA. We then sent it for sequencing so we could see what kind of plant materials were in the teas.
LILY: Gotcha. So how was your experience with this process? Was it difficult for you?
SARAH: It wasn't a process that we had done before. Also, it involved a lot of lab equipment that we weren't exposed to previously so it was quite educational for us. It was not too challenging once we learned the process. It was very beneficial for us to learn how to use various types of lab equipment.
JILLIAN: Mr. Siefert was very helpful. He knows what he is doing. Without him, we wouldn’t have known what to do.
LILY: Of course. So when did you start preparing for your project? How long was the process?
SARAH: Our state contest is in January so we start the process a few months before that. Once the state competition was done, we spent a few months preparing for the national fair, which was in October 2017.
JOHN: The FFA contest participation is outside of the classroom. So they try to fit this in with their regular school schedule.
LILY: I learned from Mr. Siefert that you had used the Open qPCR as end-point PCR for the project. Was this the first time that you used a real-time PCR instrument?
JILLIAN: We learned about the real-time PCR process in biology, but this was the first time we used it hands-on.
JOHN: We used the Open qPCR machine to amplify the DNA, but didn't use the fluorescent part to quantify it.
LILY: Right, because you didn't need it for the sequencing part of the project.
SARAH: We sent out the amplified DNA to a company called GeneWiz for sequencing because we didn't have the capability in the lab. They sequenced the DNA and sent us back the results. We used an online database that has a lot of plant genome data to match each sequence in the sample with the known plant genome.
JOHN: The gene that they amplified was rbcl, which is the standard gene for plant barcoding. Once we got the results back (electronically), they uploaded the sequencing data to the Bold database, which is barcode of life. I showed them once how to use the database. Then they entered all the sequences. It was a fun process for them to get exposed to bioinformatics software and sequence alignment.
LILY: The first time I was exposed to a sequencer was three years ago, so the fact that you had an early exposure is terrific. That is pretty awesome. So what would you consider as the most challenging part of this entire process?
JILLIAN: For me, it was the extraction process - crushing up the tea, extracting the DNA and then purifying it. Also, we had 4 or 5 samples per tea so there were a lot of samples. We had to be careful labeling them correctly and placing them in the right order so that we get the right results.
JOHN: Another challenging part was interpreting the data so when we were doing sequence alignment, we would get the most likely matches. There is a lot that came back, so how do we make the conclusion about the match? We conversed a lot about this. From the teacher standpoint, this was the most challenging.
LILY: That makes sense. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for biology teachers and high schools?
JOHN: I have a couple of recommendations. A lot of teachers are afraid to try something new. I often talk to students about learning from failure, but it is really for the teacher to do that, especially in front of the students or working with students. There have been a lot of times when we try a new piece of equipment and things don't always work the first time. I think it’s definitely worth trying new ideas in the long run.
The other thing I recommend is to try and get the training. It is important to get trained to make yourself a little more comfortable with new technologies. There are a lot of free training opportunities during the summer and throughout the school year.
SARAH: We are fortunate that we got to use the real-time PCR because most schools don't have the equipment. It would be beneficial for the schools to get one.
JOHN: We were fortunate, we had local community members who donated the money to buy the equipment. A few years ago, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars at least, so it was not as affordable as Open qPCR. I was excited when I saw that Open qPCR was only $3,749.
While most high schools around the nation typically use PCR equipment in their Biology or Agriculture labs, Conrad Weiser High was able to incorporate a real-time PCR instrument from Chai Bio in their Agriscience lab last year. The credit goes to John Siefert, a forward-thinking agriculture teacher at the school.
If you're a biology/agriscience teacher or a school administrator and want to learn more about incorporating Chai's Open qPCR in your school, you could schedule a free 1:1 web demo with our application specialist via this link.