Questions abound in DNA and Genetics

As a first year teaching assistant, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this VAMPY experience. What I have already discovered in my short time here is what a truly special place this summer camp is for everyone involved.


I have been fortunate to witness the magic that is happening in Colten Collings’ DNA & Genetics class. The students are genuinely excited to learn, display their knowledge, and delve deeper into the content. For example, ZaHir C. recently asked during our tour of the electron microscope lab, “This microscope has to scan every pixel individually, isn’t there a better way?” These questions are the sort that college students could build entire theses – or even careers – around!


Another question heard in the class: “Why does our body only have two copies of chromosomes when something like a strawberry has eight?” The discourse that begins in class carries over into our walks to lunch or going to and from study hall. The language of science that they are speaking makes me optimistic of a future with our students in STEM fields.


I don’t believe that the questions will cease in the duration of VAMPY, since we are exploring a wide range of topics in such a brief span of time! Already, we have studied the discovery of DNA and the process of DNA extraction, protein synthesis, enzymes and factors that affect reactions, types of mutations, single-gene inheritance, the function and process of electron microscopes, and an introduction to biochemistry. In the time remaining, we will learn about blood typing, shotgun sequencing, polygenetic inheritance, electrophoresis, the study of personalized medicine, modeling CRISPR, and an introduction to the study of cancer. Sound overwhelming? It’s not. Mr. Collings is an expert at meeting students where they are, presenting the material in a way that balances the line between challenging and easy-to-understand. The students are truly exceptional in their ability to integrate new material into their schema. The questions they ask, while sometimes silly, help lead the class into weaving a coherent story of genetics. 


In our class, students are truly beginning their journey of becoming experts at lab safety and conducting experiments, as well as communicating their research findings using a plethora of genetic terms. Moreover, the students deeply enjoy each lab. Abby H. said recently, “I thought the first lab was my favorite, but now this one is my favorite!” As their knowledge develops, so do the labs, and the labs seem to get better every time! On the students’ side, it is extremely satisfying to see what they have been learning demonstrated in an observable way, be it through experiments with live mutated flies, simulations of enzymes in action, or watching banana samples change color when testing for the presence of macromolecules.


At the end of the day, though, it’s not just the academics that makes this a rich experience for the students. It’s the bonds they make with each other in and out of class. It’s the group study sessions that they turn into a game to make learning enjoyable, and the encouragement of one another to be the best they can be. It’s walking to and from class all together because you don’t want anyone to feel left out. It’s the funny inside jokes about elevator elephants, and Gordon Ramsey, and the 6-square games on break. Also, if anyone knows if the presence of ghosts is confirmed or denied by physicists, Dushant L. would like to know!


Hopefully, the students do leave with more questions than answers. My wish for these students is that they stay curious and kind. Even as a teaching assistant, I felt the magic of the VAMPY experience. My hope is that in future years, more students will experience it, too.

— Sarah Angelle, teaching assistant