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Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 1:20 EDT

High School Students Help Professor Study Diseases

July 25, 2008

By Autumn Grooms, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 25–Central High School students are helping a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor this summer with research on what causes diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

They’re mixing buffers, filling tubes with solvents and inserting DNA into gel slabs. But mostly they are thrilled to be working in an active lab environment.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Alex Mahairas, who will be a senior this fall. “It’s pretty cool because no one else I know is doing this this summer.”

Mahairas filled tubes with a growth media for bacteria earlier this week.

The assignment wasn’t her favorite to date, especially when the number she filled reached 80, but the 17-year-old said she wasn’t about to complain.

“I’ve learned probably more about chemistry this summer than I have in chemistry class,” Mahairas said. “In chemistry class, I learned the numbers and equations, but here I’m learning actual hands on.”

Professor Todd Weaver included the high school students in the grant proposal to foster early interest in and exposure to science. “My selfish hope is that they choose science for a career,” Weaver said.

Mahairas is interested in pursuing a forensics major in college and Zoellner is looking to study biology, chemistry or biochemistry.

Ryan Zoellner, who will also be senior at Central this fall, would like to have the opportunity to work in a similar lab setting again.

“It doesn’t seem like work,” he said. “It’s more of a learning experience.”

Mahairas and Zoellner were the first high school students selected to assist Weaver and UW-L students with the research.

Weaver said he will continue to work with area science teachers to fill the slots for the next two summers, as the grant funding the research runs for three years.

About the research

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Chemistry Professor Todd Weaver is heading up a three-year project funded by a $145,000 National Science Foundation grant. College and high school students are helping him with research that maps infectious protein growth and designs and isolates mutant proteins.

Ultimately, Weaver hopes to develop a model explaining how certain proteins mis-fold into infectious particles. This would unveil the mystery of how prions grow, which could lead to developing strategies to prevent protein mis-folding and fibrils-type diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, mad cow disease in humans and chronic wasting disease in deer.

Autumn Grooms can be reached at (608) 791-8424 or agrooms@lacrossetribune.com.

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