High school students to analyze genetically modified foods at LTU under new grant

SOUTHFIELD—High school students will come to Lawrence Technological University in March to learn how to analyze DNA to detect genetically modified foods under a grant from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The grant comes from ASBMB’s Science Outreach and Communication Grant program to Irfana Muqbil, assistant professor of biochemistry in LTU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Irfana Muqbil. Lawrence Technological University photo.

“I have always had a great interest in outreach, so when I first learned about this grant two years ago, I really wanted to apply for it,” Muqbil said. “It has two components–you have to propose biochemistry related outreach activity, and you have to have a diverse audience.”

To find that audience, Muqbil turned to Jay Jessen, executive director of LTU’s Marburger STEM Center, the university’s clearinghouse for its K-12 STEAM education outreach efforts. And Jessen connected Muqbil with Racquet Up Detroit, a nonprofit organization offering Detroit students after-school activities, ranging from racquet sports to academics.

So, in March, Racquet Up Detroit students will visit Lawrence Tech for three days, learning how to conduct sophisticated DNA analysis laboratory operations and lab safety—and, just as importantly, having discussions about the ethics of genetically modified foods.

The students will choose from among foods popular with young people—cereals, tortilla chips, and the like—isolate the DNA of the plants used to make them, then amplify that DNA using a process called polymerase chain reaction to produce DNA samples suitable for analysis. Then, they’ll use a process called gel electrophoresis to analyze the DNA, and look for markers of genetic modifications in the foods. Finally, they’ll discuss their findings, as well as the controversies surrounding GM foods in the food industry.

Said Jessen: “This is a really cool project, not just because we are giving them a chance to do this awesome hands-on activity, but the conversations afterward will bring in the social-emotional component of education as well.”

Joey Goddeeris, graduate success coordinator at Racquet Up Sports, said the organization was founded 13 years ago with a group of fifth graders at two schools in northwest Detroit. Today, it serves 140 students and has its own building on West Outer Drive, providing after-school and summer academic programs—as well as competitive squash. (In fact, its teams competed at a national tournament in Philadelphia last weekend.) Goddeeris said Racquet Up has forged a deep relationship with Lawrence Tech in recent years, sending students to LTU for campus visits and activities. “We’re finding many ways to partner with LTU and let our students experience college and scientific discoveries,” Goddeeris said.

Muqbil and Jessen said they hope the program will become a recurring offering of LTU’s K-12 STEM education outreach efforts.

Shannon Timmons, chair of LTU’s Department of Natural Sciences, said the department fully supports this outreach effort. “This grant-funded outreach program aligns well with the department’s goal of engaging K-12 students in exciting hands-on science activities to help inspire the next generation of STEM professionals,” Timmons said.

Muqbil joined LTU in the Fall 2021 semester after postdoctoral research at Wayne State University and teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She earned Master of Science and PhD degrees in biochemistry from Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, India. Jessen joined LTU in August 2021 as assistant director of the Marburger STEM Center and became its director in January 2023. He earned a Bachelor of Science in geography and environmental studies from Western Michigan University and a Master of Education from Wayne State University.

Lawrence Technological University is one of only 13 private, technological, comprehensive doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932 and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, Engineering, and Health Sciences, as well as Specs@LTU as part of its growing Center for Professional Development. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal rank LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report list it in the top tier of the best Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.

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