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Making the frog glow: TC3 program helps students shine in science

Photo provided by Tompkins Cortland Community College

Students learn lab skills with biology professor James “Jake” Jacob at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

DRYDEN — Picture an albino African aquatic frog. Glowing.

Tompkins Cortland Community College students have already figured out how to make the frog ovulate more frequently and de-jelly the eggs making them more susceptible to DNA injections. All they have to do now is figure out how to inject the fluorescence protein DNA into the eggs without damaging them.

This is just one example of a DNA technology project that Tompkins Cortland Community College students are working on as part of the college’s emphasis on providing hands-on laboratory experience for students to use in pursuit of internships and research opportunities.

James “Jake” Jacob, professor of biology at TC3, enthused Tuesday in the TC3 Cortland Extension Center about his students’ endeavors, where they get the hands-on experience and a chance to learn from their mistakes.

“Learning from failure, when you correct it, you really understand what’s going on,” he said.

Even though the students have not yet figured out how to make the frog glow, they studied other research to find the best way to remove the jelly from around the eggs so the DNA can be injected. This was a delicate process that involved trial and error to remove the jelly without harming the eggs.

Each mistake corrected is a step closer to success.

The college’s commitment to the sciences has resulted in 12 students since 2013 getting chosen for Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs, competitive research internships in which the students are selected from applicants nationwide. These Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs have been through Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell University, SUNY Cobleskill and others. The internships are in conjunction with real research at the school, often leading to published papers and sometimes paid positions.

Most recently Nick Brown and Kurt Manrique-Nino were chosen this year for REUs with Cornell University.

Tori Knapp, who graduated TC3 in May 2016, also was selected for an REU last summer. Knapp credits her experience in Jacob’s biotechnology course with setting her on the path toward graduate school after she gets a bachelor’s degree in physics from Ithaca College.

Knapp expected, when she started at TC3, she would just graduate the two-year school and get a job in a laboratory afterward.

But as she got more involved in the laboratory work at TC3, she gained confidence in her abilities to further her education.

“Once I got the ball rolling I realized I could pull it off, I realized I really like science and school and why don’t I stick it out and see if I can do it,” she said Tuesday.

Jacob is committed to handing opportunities to all his students, she said.

“Anybody who’s interested in going farther than just a two-year degree, he’s right there and anything he knows he’ll offer it up, saying, ‘You can do this, you can apply for this,’ and he’ll write letters and look over applications,” she said.

Jacob knew Knapp wanted to learn more about physics and so when a past student of his called him from Cornell University, seeking to be a mentor as part of a PhD program in biophysics, he mentioned Knapp. That internship experience lasted a year and four months and positioned her to qualify for an REU internship at RIT.

There, she studied the age of a variable star, saying while they didn’t figure out a definite age, they were able to rule some things out, find missing pieces and study everything in the neighborhood of the star.

It all fits with her love of learning, something she credits Jacob with helping to bring out.

“That lab experience alone really pushed me to keep going because it was learning without judgment,” Knapp said. “In the lab, it’s just learning for the sake of learning because I want to understand how things work.”

And for Jacob, what he finds most gratifying is tapping the potential of a student who may have otherwise not found it.

“If she was in a larger audience, her other talents would have been missed,” he said, referring to another student he urged to employ her web design skills, eventually leading to a paid position at a university.

So he strikes up conversations with students, hoping to learn more about them and make a difference in their lives.

And sometimes that means giving them the skillset to figure out how to make a frog glow.