Blending Biology and Computer Science: Texas Wesleyan Empowers Young Scientists
Thanks to the Project SEED grant from the American Chemical Society, two North Texas high school students are completing summer internships in biology at Texas Wesleyan University. The project aims to help “provide sustained STEM research, learning and growth opportunities for high school students with diverse identities and socioeconomic backgrounds so they can be empowered to advance and enrich the chemical science enterprise,” according to their website.
The grant gives the students a $4,000 stipend over the 8- to 10-week summer internship, and students can also apply to receive a scholarship up to $5,000 for their first year of college.
There are only six institutions in Texas with summer programs, and Texas Wesleyan is the only one in Dallas-Fort Worth. Dr. Bruce Benz, professor of biology, is using his project with Tandy Hills Nature Center to provide hands-on experiences for the two North Texas teens, Rona Ismael, an upcoming senior at Plano East Senior High School and Katherine Le, an upcoming junior at Saginaw High School.
Le wants to work in programming, like computer science, to help with scientific data and research.
“I do computer science at my school, and I think it’s really cool,” she said. “Dr. Benz was talking to us about how there's a growing number of data analysts in the chemistry and biology field. So, I'm thinking of incorporating that into it, too.”
Ismael wants to work in neuroscience, researching neurodegenerative diseases. She was inspired to explore the field after one of her teacher’s husbands was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease.
“My teacher had to quit her job and go home to take care of him and figure out what to do,” she said. “That got me into being more interested in neurodegenerative diseases. She said there wasn’t a lot of research on it. I think it's really bad how we don't have enough research. No one should feel helpless because we're not researching.”
Over the beginning of the summer, the interns worked on building their skills by sequencing their own DNA. This process allows them to see the building blocks of their DNA, which tells them about the genetic information in a particular DNA segment. Scientists can then use that info to see if gene changes can lead to diseases.
But it doesn’t stop with humans — plants also contain DNA. And for the past 15 years, Dr. Benz has been working closely with Tandy Hills Nature Center and the City of Fort Worth to help map invasive plants in the nature center using DNA sequencing.
“There are bunch of databases that have nothing but sequences,” Dr. Benz said. “Any living organism has DNA. All of them have unique sequences, but some of the sequences are more related to each other. And so, these DNA can help identify the group, it can also help identify how individual plants bacteria is different.”
Ismael and Le are learning how to use the different tools in Texas Wesleyan’s laboratories, preparing them to take on their majors and careers — but by using the tools for their own DNA, they are also learning the building blocks of how to sequence the plant DNA to help Dr. Benz.
“The problem is that DNA is hard to get out of plants and the DNA in the soil is very fragmentary,” Dr. Benz said. And that’s why he started Ismael and Le on work that teaches them “to understand how science is done.”
He’s also taken the students to Tandy Hills to grab soil samples to extract the DNA and figure out to what extent the invasive plant species has taken over.
“Some are going to be easy; some are not going to be so easy. [On a trip to Tandy Hills], we went and collected all the plants that are invasive, and we froze the samples using liquid nitrogen in the field,” he said. “We then brought them back to Texas Wesleyan and stuck them in a negative 80-degree freezer. The extraction alone takes days because it has to be done with large sequences of DNA from each of these invasive plants.”
After they’ve collected the data needed, Dr. Benz will be able to identify areas in the park to target the invasive species. He hopes to provide the City of Fort Worth with a map of places where they can extract plants and places to leave intact.
“I think they're having fun and learning things that they didn't think they needed to know,” Dr. Benz smiled as he talked about the students. “Plus, one of many employment opportunities for computer science is biology related.”
Dr. Chitra Chandrasekaran, associate professor of biology and department chair, agreed with Dr. Benz saying that computer science is helping biologists find ways to analyze data and make predictions.
“There’s no way to do that with your eyes,” she said. “People who are trained with a computer science background but know biology — that's a very hot job market right now.”
And that brings up another great thing starting at Texas Wesleyan next spring — the Master’s of Computer Science online program.
“It's probably a necessity that biology majors who want to do any kind of research, including pharmaceutical research, are going to have to mess with computer science,” Dr. Chandrasekaran said. “It's coming. If it's not here now, it's coming.”
It’s that data collection, analyzation and predictions from computer science that will also help people like Ismael who are researching neurodegenerative diseases. There’s also computer science development of wearable devices and sensor technologies that can monitor disease progression. In fact, two Texas Wesleyan undergraduates completed an award-winning project in 2021 for creating a device that detects stress levels.
It all starts with young scientists getting the investments they need from foundations like the American Chemical Society to learn alongside scientists like Dr. Bruce Benz to get the skills they need to become the next big game changers in our communities.