Will Garrison, Emily Hyatt, Francesca Frasco, Lauren Gurney and Emma Gallagher.
You might be familiar with the names.
Structural biology, protein crystallography, and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase.
We bet you’re not familiar with those at all.
But those talented Shelter Island students — Will and Emily are graduates — have demonstrated “incredible perseverance through constant setbacks and failure” to emerge as young scientists who have “the potential for success in whatever adventures they choose to follow in life,” according to their teacher, Dan Williams.
The work they have done has “left a legacy of scientific exploration that has made this school and now schools all over Long Island a better place,” Mr. Williams added.
The students have spent long hours in the school laboratory and at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) laying the groundwork for discoveries that could lead to breakthroughs in treating and, perhaps, curing multiple human diseases.
For Mr. Williams, it started when he was doing graduate work in biology. His professor convinced him that molecular structure present in all living cells plays a crucial role in synthesizing proteins vital to body functions. As Mr. Williams’ passion for this field of boiolgy grew, he became determined to bring the study into the high school classroom.
Taking it to the next level
Emily Hyatt, who graduated in 2016, became a star in Mr. Williams’ classroom, conducting independent research that involved modeling the protein ribosome recycling factor (RRF) present in human cells.
Her aim was to learn to turn the processes of the protein on and off to demonstrate how that might affect bacterial diseases and not just reenact the work of others, but discover new structures that no one else had studied, Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Williams used contacts at Brookhaven National Laboratory for assistance. Ms. Hyatt’s involvement in this type of sophisticated research at BNL is so extraordinary that Mr. Williams, who teaches a class over the summer to high school teachers at BNL, plans to use
Ms. Hyatt’s data as an example to help other science teachers.
It led to a group of Long Island teachers forming a structural biology research group last summer with faculty from seven schools participating and crafting a proposal that grants access to high school students to perform all aspects of such studies at BNL.
That program, begun by the seven science teachers from Suffolk County, is underway with more students benefitting from the use of BNL equipment.
As Mr. Williams moved forward in his own classroom on Shelter Island, he admitted the process of studying RNA “started with many bumps and failures.” As he knew, and his students learned, there would be many failures along the path “which is a testament to the amazing students who embarked on the journey,” Mr. Williams said.
He introduced structural biology to a few students who began working with modeling software.
Enthusiastic at the outset working on “cutting edge science,” they soon learned there would be a lot of “drudgery” in their efforts as they moved “one step forward and five steps back,” the teacher said.
Persistence pays off
Will Garrison, the 2017 Shelter Island High School class salutatorian, persevered through many failures during long hours spent in the laboratory including nights and weekends. Mr. Williams realized this was a student who had “eclipsed my knowledge.”
Accordingly, Mr. Garrison ended up leading the program.
High school senior Francesca Frasco is studying the protein methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, which has been linked to multiple human diseases. Ms. Frasco, like those who came before her, is demonstrating the same persistence her predecessors exhibited.
Told she wouldn’t be able to obtain the protein to study, she contacted scientists around the world. A faculty member at Grinnell College in Iowa sent a supply of the protein without charge for students to use in their experiments on Shelter Island.
Even with the protein, Mr. Williams warned Ms. Frasco that students might never find the correct reaction conditions to obtain the necessary crystals. “People spend years trying and never succeed,” Mr. Williams said.
Ms. Frasco and Shelter Island students Ms. Gurney and Emma Gallagher, plus students from across Long Island spent a Saturday this past January at BNL setting up their crystallization reactions.
The other two Shelter Island students had projects of their own, but Mr. Williams convinced them to work with Ms. Frasco as training for their future research.
“Now Francesca was the tutor,” Mr. Williams said. The students set up more than 300 chemical reactions to see if they could obtain crystals for analysis. Two week later, they examined each for protein crystals.
The next day they were able to fish the crystals out, freeze them in liquid nitrogen and place them in a sophisticated machine to be hit with X-rays. They would soon learn that what they had was not protein, but salt.
“The disappointment was devastating for all of us,” Mr. Williams said. “After hours, months and in fact, years of hard work, all we had was salt,” Mr. Williams said.
But after the initial disappointment, the students refused to quit. This month, they were told by Dr. Soares at BNL they had 32 beautiful protein crystals. They plan to return to BNL for further study.
Others will follow in the footsteps of these Shelter Island students thanks to their teacher who created opportunities for his students to persist despite the odds of success.