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Getting involved in university research

Getting involved in research
© Wellcome Connecting Science

Most universities and academic institutions have public engagement departments, and lots might have the opportunity for teachers and students to get involved in research projects and activities.

This can be an amazing opportunity for students to learn more lab skills and understand how scientific projects are run, developing their confidence and science identities.

One such project is Barcoding the Broads, a project run by Dr Sam Rowe at the Earlham Institute in Norwich, England.

Photo credit: Sasha Stanbridge, Design and Multimedia Officer at Earlham Institute

Barcoding the Broads is a Wellcome-funded programme of public engagement events and activities to explore biodiversity on the Norfolk Broads, led by the Earlham Institute as part of our work on the Darwin Tree of Life project.

The programme focuses on DNA barcoding, a powerful technique for identifying a species of plant, insect or fungus by extracting and analysing its DNA. Analysing DNA barcodes – unique patterns of DNA within a genome – is useful for species identification because it’s fast, cheap and accessible. It works alongside traditional methods where specimens are analysed by experts with years of knowledge, but where it can be hard to distinguish between subtle anatomical features.

We’ve been sharing the skills and knowledge for DNA barcoding through interactive training sessions so teachers can incorporate the technique into their education work. DNA barcoding provides an authentic research experience – asking questions, conducting experiments, analysing results and drawing conclusions – with a variety of laboratory and computer methods. It covers many key curriculum topics in biology and chemistry such as taxonomy, phylogenetics, biodiversity, ecology, bioinformatics and genomics, and would be suitable to share at year 10, year 11 and sixth form level.

Based on the approach used by our collaborators at Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the training sessions involve: sample collection, rapid DNA isolation, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis. Within a few hours, we know whether the experiments have worked and successfully amplified DNA samples can be sent off for DNA sequencing. An amazing piece of software called the DNA Subway is then used to analyse our sequence data and identify the collected plant, insect or fungus species.

The protocols are straightforward and reliable thanks to the huge advances in sequencing technology and the miniaturisation of laboratory equipment, meaning anyone can identify an organism with a bit of training and support. It opens up a new world of possibilities for appreciating the importance of biodiversity and conservation. In particular, we use small and portable pieces of equipment such as the miniPCR thermal cycler which can run up to 16 samples at a time.The availability and affordability of the tools for doing molecular science really opens up the project to a broad audience.

Feedback from teachers, technicians and sixth form students who attended the sessions has been overwhelmingly positive due to the hands-on nature of the work and the fact it feeds directly into ongoing research by the Darwin Tree of Life project. Beyond the introductory training sessions, schools are now getting set up as DNA barcoding ‘hubs’ to perform independent experiments for exploring the biodiversity of their doorstep.

For more information about the project, please visit the Barcoding the Broads webpage

Have you taken part in or been involved in research projects run by universities or academic institutions? How did you and/or your students benefit?

© Wellcome Connecting Science
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