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Biology students present diabetes research at UF symposium

From left, Sydni Starling, Deirdre Riggs, Sarah Farnesi, Devon Burns and Kelsey Brown.Four high school sophomores ventured to the 49th Annual Junior Science, Engineering and Humanities Symposium last week at the University of Florida to present a study on diabetes research they conducted in the classroom this school year.

The young ladies from the health academy — Kelsey Brown, Devon Burns, Sydni Starling and Sarah Farnesi — were selected from 127 students in biology teacher Deirdre Riggs’ classes to attend the three-day event and share their conclusions.

Ms. Riggs had her students pen a two-page paper about whether a rare form of diabetes called MODY (Maturity Onset Diabetes in the Young), that shares characteristics of Type 2 diabetes more common in overweight adults, is inherited or caused by environmental factors like lifestyle and diet.

The papers counted as final exams and followed laboratory research partially funded by the university as part of a program to enrich high school science classes by incorporating more hands-on activities.

Last summer, after an application process, Ms. Riggs was chosen to attend a two-week training session at UF along with about 20 other Florida high school teachers.


Her goal for the training was to develop a laboratory-based research project she could take back and implement in the classroom. The university paid her $1600 and donated about $200 worth of lab supplies to make the research project a reality.

“We could pick anything,” Ms. Riggs said of the potential projects.

Ms. Riggs decided to build her project around diabetes because hospitalization and death rates for the disease in Baker County are well above the state average. Plus, she said, she’s got a background in health care after spending a year in the field following graduation from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

“The whole idea is to promote research,” she said of the summer program at UF. “The final outcome was to write a research proposal. Then we did all the labs there that I turned around and did with my students.”

After learning about the various types of diabetes and its prevalence among the population here, students turned to learning lab safety and procedures while conducting the research to uncover the root cause of MODY, which is usually diagnosed before age 25.

“What’s different here that’s not happening in Orlando?” asked Ms. Riggs. “That’s the kind of stuff I wanted them to look at to see if it’s genetic or environmental.”

Most of her pupils’ papers argued what Ms. Riggs expected — that MODY is caused by a mix of heredity and lifestyle choices.

The four girls selected to attend the symposium, however, all took the same stand. While one’s lifestyle can impact the disease positively or negatively, they argued, MODY is nonetheless traceable to the characteristics of one’s DNA.

During the three-day symposium at UF, January 28-30, the students were exposed to the campus, the university’s science programs and other high school students from around the state.

“I thought it went well,” Ms. Riggs said upon their return. “I definitely think that Baker County was a little out shown though. I think the science curriculum at some of the other schools is a lot higher.”

Many of the students invited to attend came from private schools or magnet schools with more rigorous science and technology programs, Ms. Riggs said.

Juniors and seniors attending the event presented their research results as part of a judged competition to win scholarships and a trip to the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. Sophomores, like the group from BCHS, and freshman presented their research as well, but not competitively.

The four girls didn’t know each other well before the trip, but said they became friends, bonding on the car ride south and enjoying late-night milkshakes.

“Ms. Riggs was in the hotel room next to us, so we just kind of had some girl time and talked and got to know each other,” Ms. Burns, 16, said of the first night in Gainesville, which followed a pizza social.

“We really liked staying at the hotel because there was a Steak-N-Shake on one side of the hotel and a McDonald’s on the other side,” she said.

For much of the trip, the teens said they didn’t feel like they fit in with the rest of the students there.

“We kind of stuck out compared to everybody else,” said Ms. Burns. “Once we got there everybody was dressed in suits and ties and we were just dressed casual. We still looked cute and stuff, but we kind of had our own little group.”

On the second day of the symposium, the teens toured a number of labs at the campus and heard about topics that included climate change, ocean drilling and how ions are made.

“It was huge,” Ms. Starling, also 16, said of the campus. “Everybody was riding bikes to get around ... We even saw a guy on a unicycle.”

On the final day, the group got in front of their peers to review their research results. The girls pulled information from their papers to create a slide show. They described the experience as “nerve racking.”

“All of us were nervous when we got up there,” said Ms. Farnesi, 15.

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