- Associated Press - Friday, July 10, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - The researchers carefully extract genetic material known as DNA from potato chips, cookies and other common food items.

Seated around a laboratory table at the University of Notre Dame, they turn their attention to analyzing the genetic sequence of the samples, to determine if the foods were produced using genetically modified crops.

These intent young scientists aren’t Notre Dame undergraduates.

They are youngsters soon to enter the seventh, eighth or ninth grade, and they’re spending a week of summer vacation at a genetics camp at Notre Dame. And they’re loving it.

What the kids enjoy most is the hands-on research.

“We get to be sort of independent. We get to experience things that we wouldn’t otherwise,” said camper Emily Murphy, 12, a student at St. Anthony de Padua Catholic School in South Bend. She plans to become a geneticist.

“It’s really fun and I’m learning a lot,” Nico Paolina, 14, a camper from Bellaire, Ohio, told the South Bend Tribune (https://bit.ly/1SbentJ ).

“My teacher recommended this camp to me. I plan on becoming a medical examiner,” said Renee Creppy, 13, of Kokomo.

This is Notre Dame’s DNA Learning Center, located in Jordan Hall of Science. The laboratory was completed last fall and started offering programming to schoolchildren this year, including residential and day camps this summer. It is designed specifically to serve K-12 students.

Among the week’s activities, the campers are using samples of their own saliva to conduct mitochondrial DNA tests, which provide details about their maternal ancestry lineage. They’re also sequencing DNA in leaf specimens to determine the tree species.

“The goal of the center broadly is to engage everyone in science and genetics,” said Amy Stark, the center’s director, who earned a doctoral degree in human genetics at the University of Chicago. She leads the camps.

Stark is making presentations to students and educators at area schools, both public and private. School groups are welcome to visit the DNA Learning Center on field trips and participate in a forensics challenge.

Beside the summer camps, the center during the school year will offer after-school activities and eventually add programming for adults in the community.

Notre Dame’s center is run in collaboration with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private research lab in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. That lab has long operated a DNA Learning Center to provide hands-on genetic education for children in the New York metro area.

Notre Dame’s center was created with a gift from Dr. John Passarelli, a New York ophthalmologist and 1972 Notre Dame graduate, and his wife, Heidi. The couple wanted to create a hands-on science center focusing on modern biology education aimed at K-12 students in the South Bend area. They saw how the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center was helping New York area children.

The residential camps at Notre Dame have drawn youngsters from across the Midwest and as far away as Mississippi. One needn’t be a science prodigy to sign up. Some scholarships are available.

For residential camps, the young participants get to stay in a college dormitory, eat in the dining hall and participate in a variety of campus activities planned for them when they’re not in the laboratory.

“It was such a fun week. It was very enlightening,” said Lauren Rymsza, 15, of South Bend, soon to be a 10th-grader at St. Joseph High School. She attended a residential camp at the DNA Learning Center earlier this month.

The experience has Lauren already thinking about her future career. “The main goal I was working toward was physical therapy, but this experience opened me up to the possibility of working in biology or chemistry,” she said.


Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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