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Seventeen Minutes of Science: Beyond the School Science Fair: How One High Schooler is Jumpstarting her Science Career

Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!

Two weeks ago we were joined by Goran Bozinovic, the president and CEO of the Boz Institute to talk about how the Boz Institute is getting high schoolers involved in science and cultivating the next generation of scientists. This week, as a followup, we are joined by Natalie Olander, a high school junior who has participated in the Boz program and credits much of her experience with Boz to her desire to major in STEM and pursue a STEM career after college.

Natalie is a Junior at Veritas School in Newberg, Oregon. She participated in the Boz Institute’s Summer 2020 Research Immersion Program studying aging and protein aggregation related to HFPO-DA stress in C. elegans. Natalie presented her research performed at the Boz Institute in a 3-minute pitch at Oregon Bioscience Association’s annual conference. She is also a co-author on a paper submitted to Scientific Reports looking at child ADHD diagnosis and treatment trends.

Join us as we talk with Natalie about her project and about how working on such a rigorous project while still in high school has shaped her understanding of science and prepared her for college.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:00:00] Welcome everyone to Seventeen Minutes of Science, which is InVivo Biosystem’s show where we talk to scientists and science interested parties about their experiences as they’re learning science. Today we have a very special guest, this is Natalie Olander. She is a junior at  Veritas School in Newberg, Oregon. She participated in the Boz institute’s Summer 2020 Research Immersion Program to study aging and protein aggregation related to HFPO-DA stress in C. elegans. Natalie presented her research, performed at the Boz institute in a three minute pitch at the Oregon Bioscience Association’s annual conference. She’s also the co-author on a paper submitted to scientific reports looking at ADHD diagnosis and treatment trends. So welcome, Natalie. Welcome to 17 minutes of Science.


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:00:48] Thank you.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:00:50] So, Natalie, you are a high school student who’s been able to participate in this program during a pandemic, so I just have to ask what that experience was like for you. What is it like to do research during this time?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:01:08] So it was definitely different from the traditional going into the lab and doing wet lab techniques to do research because it was all virtual due to the pandemic. But it was a great opportunity because it actually allowed me to participate in the Boz Institute’s program, because I live up in Oregon and the Boz Institute is down in San Diego. So I participated in their summer molecular biology research immersion program. Um, and we learned basic molecular biology concepts that built off of what I had learned in high school biology class, and then it went deeper. And alongside that, we also learned wet lab techniques through videos and presentations. So it was kind of like we were in the lab, even though we couldn’t be physically. And then – oh, sorry –


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:02:02] It’s OK. That’s really, really neat. I mean, I think with the pandemic, we’ve all had different experiences of how it’s changed learning and especially for a high school student. I’m interested, but it seems like you had an opportunity that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. But then also your learning of the wet techniques obviously is different than it would have been if you were in a lab. So that’s uh, that’s really interesting. So how did you hear about the Boz Institute program?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:02:31] So I got an email from the Oregon Bioscience Association saying that they were sponsoring 10 Oregon students’ participation. And I’d been, I was interested in becoming a medical doctor, so I thought it would be a great idea to get some experience and research. So I applied and I got the scholarship and I’m so glad I did because I really loved the program. And now I’m interested in going into research, like as a career because it was just such a great experience.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:03:03] What’s one surprising thing that you learned about research that you weren’t expecting when you were anticipating your medical career?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:03:11] I didn’t realize, well, I didn’t really have an understanding of research at all, so I didn’t really understand how basic things I learned in biology that seemed like memorization actually applied to making new scientific discoveries. So that was a really cool thing to understand and see the connections between everything I’ve been learning in school and then how they’re applied to make discoveries in the lab.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:03:40] Yeah, that’s really, I think, so interesting for students to learn about how techniques are applied to make actual discoveries. So can you tell us a little bit more about the project that you worked on?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:03:54] Yeah, so we were looking at aging in C. elegans when exposed to Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, which is HFPO-DA or it’s known by its brand name, GenX. And that chemical was created as an alternative to the PFAS chemicals, which are known to cause cancer and weaken the immune system. So it’s supposed to be a safer alternative. However, there hasn’t really been conclusive research done on the chemical, even though it surrounds us daily. It’s used in manufacturing for many household items such as non-stick cookware, food packaging, electronics and cabling. So it surrounds us daily and it’s released into the environment as well through wastewater, and it’s found in treated drinking water. So it’s surrounding us in our daily lives. So there needs to be research done on it to see if there are any adverse effects from our exposure to it. So we treated the worms through their food with low levels of GenX in this preliminary study that I was involved in. And we were looking at 10 specific genes that are related to cellular metabolism and aging to see if there were statistically significant changes in gene expression levels. And the preliminary study didn’t find any of the genes had significant changes. But now we’re using, uh, shallow RNA sequencing to look at more genes at higher levels with the reasoning that if we see effects on gene expression in acute exposure, they might be similar to those of chronic exposure to this chemical.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:05:41] So your exposure was acute or was it chronic through the food treatment?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:05:47] It was, it was more acute, I’d say, just because of the lifespan of the worms. But I, as we’re moving forward, we’re also obviously testing different things.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:06:04] Longer, longer treatments. Well, that’s really interesting. I hope you find something in that shallow RNA seq. I think that will be really cool to see. I’m not sure whether a lifespan project has ever been done with HFPO-DA. GenX, as you said, the brand name.


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:06:27] Yeah.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:06:27] OK – with Gen X, but that definitely seems like a really important thing for us to investigate. So had you worked with C. elegans ever before, when you started working for the Boz Institute?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:06:41] I hadn’t, I didn’t really have any research experience, so everything I learned was through the program.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:06:49] Had you ever even heard of C. elegans


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:06:50] ?No, I hadn’t.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:06:54] I think that not many people know what they are. So I’m not too surprised. So it’s not really common for high schoolers to get to work on such studies at an in depth level. Do you want to continue pursuing STEM careers as you get older?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:07:14] I definitely do. In college, I’m looking to study biology or molecular biology because I really loved learning in those areas of the scientific field. And I definitely want to continue in research, which I’m really excited to get the opportunity to get in a lab and do the wet lab techniques I’ve learned.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:07:35] That will be nice. I think there’s nothing like actually using a pipette to tell you about what benchmark is like. So I also wanted to know, like, where is the data from your project going and how is it getting out into the world?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:07:54] So we are still working on the actual study, we did the preliminary study on 10 genes, but we have not released other data yet because we have not finished our work, um.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:08:11] Ok, is it going to be published someday?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:08:16] Yes, yes. It will.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:08:18] Ok. And you had to prepare a poster presentation for OBA [Oregon Bioscience Association], is that right?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:08:24] I did a three minute pitch, so as slides presentation. And I did that pitch alongside PhD students and other researchers, which was a really neat opportunity. I won second place in my category, which was really exciting for me. And then I also got feedback from professionals who attended the conference and they gave links to resources and they gave me feedback. So it’s really a great experience of learning and also practice in presenting research, which is what all scientists have to do because it’s about sharing what we learned to the world.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:09:06] Yeah, yeah, it is. I think so often as scientists that we get this idea that we need to kind of work in a vacuum and then it will be so hard for the world to ever hear about it. But as you say, it’s science, science education, science translation is a huge part of what we need to have happen for our world to improve.


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:09:30] Yeah.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:09:32] So how do you envision that the data from this research would be used?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:09:37] Yeah. So I think that this data have very practical applications because if there are no adverse effects from exposure to GenX, then we have evidence to believe that GenX may not be harmful. But if we do find that there are significant changes in gene expression, then there should definitely be more research done and there should potentially be limiting of its use and – to prevent against these adverse effects and premature aging.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:10:14] Yeah, I think that, that’s, definitely I think the story we’ve seen over and over again with exposure to chemicals, with Lead and other chemicals in our environment, as we learn more about them, we have to figure out how to restrict their use so that it keeps us all safe. How about the coming summer? Do you have any plans for continuing your research and your education?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:10:40] Yes, I’m going to be working with the Boz Institute again on bioinformatics and biostatistics. And then, so I’m going to be taking a course on that. And then we have plans for – I might be teaching part of that course in the fall. So I’m really excited about that.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:10:58] Oh, wow. That’s amazing. So for those who missed last week’s episode, could you tell us a little bit about the Boz Institute?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:11:05] Yeah. So the Boz Institute is both a research lab and a teaching institute for high schoolers and other students. It’s a nonprofit organization and they are teaching high schoolers by involving them in the research process. They typically, when there’s no COVID, they have the students come into the lab and we learn well, learn research techniques, hands on. And then at the end of the course, we present our research through a poster presentation to professionals in the field.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:11:45] That is a great opportunity, honestly, and I think it’s really exciting to think that you could take a course and then be able to teach it to other students like yourself in the next term. Yes. So what are you excited about in this bioinformatics and biostatistics course?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:12:04] I’m excited to learn it all because it’s a big part of science is being able to do these different analyses on the data. And I don’t – I have limited experience in that. So I’m really excited to learn more different analyses and to carry on research at the same time. I’m not quite sure what the project, the research project will be, but I’m really excited to get involved in that.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:12:31] Yeah, it does seem like an easier, easier to be really deep in the data when it’s dry, than on the wet lab – this type of, this project. So you also currently have a paper in review focusing on ADHD trends in children in the US. Can you tell us more about that paper?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:12:52] Yes. So after participating in the research immersion program last summer, I had the opportunity to join a team of researchers at the Boz Institute and we were looking at ADHD trends in medication and diagnoses using the publicly available data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. And we were looking at trends throughout the US. We looked at national data and then also outlier states. So we looked at Louisiana, which has really high diagnosis and medication rates, and then Nevada, which has really low ones. And we did different statistical analysis and we found different trends that within states that didn’t necessarily reflect trends seen at the national level. So it was really interesting to find those things. And we looked at a bunch of more socioeconomic factors than previous papers have, and we found different correlations. So diagnoses were more correlated to parents, perceived unsafe schools and unsafe neighborhoods and economic hardship and different factors like that that we could look at both the national level but also at state level.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:14:11] That’s really interesting. I mean, I think it means that you’re already really well prepared for your bioinformatics course this summer.


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:14:19] Yeah, I’m super excited.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:14:20] Yeah. So that’s – like I said, we’re at this time in our cultural moment where bioinformatics and biological information has been much more in the news cycle than ever before. So I’m curious, as you went through this program and you started to think about data and research and also there was all this kind of COVID data out in the world, did you think that your approach to hearing numbers in the news and hearing about statistics in the news changed?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:14:53] I think I definitely had a deeper understanding behind what was going on in those numbers just because of the experiences I’ve had. And I’m very excited to learn more so that I can have an even deeper understanding.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:15:10] Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think that what you said about ADHD is also true right now for everything from like infection rates to vaccination rates, for seeing all these different these trends that are happening nationally or globally that have really interesting reversals, more rural areas versus kind of populous areas. So I think knowing about having that kind of data literacy is super important for knowing how to to act in the world. Do you think that working with these numbers also impacted kind of your own risk assessment when it came to COVID?


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:15:52] Um, I haven’t really thought about that, but that’s definitely something interesting, yeah, yeah.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:16:02] Well, Natalie, we are at our 17 minutes and we really want to thank you for joining our show today. And, so I just want to thank the Boz Institute and Oregon Bioscience Association for funding you because you are such an amazing student. So I’m really happy for the opportunities that you’ve received and to work with you in the future as more of a colleague.


Natalie Olander (Guest): [00:16:30] Yes. Thank you for having me.


Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:16:31] Alright. Bye Natalie.

About The Author

InVivo Biosystems

InVivo Biosystems provides essential services to help pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, biotechnology companies and academic research institutions around the globe accelerate their research and drug development efforts. An expert in CRISPR genome editing, InVivo Biosystems creates custom genome edited C. elegans and zebrafish models to enable aging and other disease studies. In addition, InVivo Biosystems provides in-vivo analytical services to produce data and insights for companies that need to make go/no-go decisions quickly in early-stage development of new compounds.

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