Fernando Freitas has had a lot of new experiences as an exchange student in Medical Lake.
The 17-year-old Brazilian ran cross-country. He went to an NBA basketball game. He saw snow for the first time and tried snowboarding.
Now he’s moved on to something awfully high-tech for a high-schooler: genetic engineering.
As part of his senior project at Medical Lake High School, Freitas enlisted the help of Washington State University researcher B.W. “Joe” Poovaiah – who soon had Freitas unkinking strands of DNA, removing and inserting genes in bacteria, and learning the basic techniques of biotechnology in his Pullman lab.
Freitas is working with a gene that changes the color of bacteria when inserted to create a protein – Green Fluorescent Protein.
“The bacteria produce this protein that actually glows in the dark,” Freitas said.
That glow-in-the-dark impact is the “wow” factor Poovaiah is shooting for. Lab work can be exacting and slow, but Poovaiah wants to translate the excitement of current biotechnology advances, which are revolutionizing science.
The map of the human genome was completed in recent years, and scientists have begun an effort to identify the complete genetic makeup of cancer. Researchers announced just last week that they had identified a single genetic mutation that was responsible for the appearance of white skin in human beings.
In scientific field after field, genetic research has exploded in recent years, and Poovaiah would like to see high school students and teachers learn more about it.
“Many schools don’t have these programs in place,” he said. “But there are many teachers interested and students who are curious.”
Poovaiah has a grant from the National Science Foundation to help bring biotechnology skills to high school students. His son, Kiran, a senior at Pullman High, has been working in the lab as well. Poovaiah also works with two undergraduates who participated in the NSF program as high-schoolers.
Kiran Poovaiah has been working in the lab, with the guidance of Liqun Du, since May, and he expects to complete the sequence and see the color produced in the coming weeks.
“To be able to toy around with the DNA is something that just fascinates me,” he said.
Still, Kiran Poovaiah isn’t certain he’ll follow in the footsteps of his father, who has worked on plant genetics for around 30 years.
“I really like this field, but honestly, I think I want to be an architect,” he said.
Freitas came to Medical Lake from Sao Bernando, Brazil. He’s spending the year with Joe and Diane Nuess, and their son, Cameron, who’s also a senior at Medical Lake High. Joe Nuess said another exchange student, from Taiwan, lives across the street. When the snow first flew this year, Freitas and the Taiwanese student rushed out into it.
“They hadn’t ever seen snow before,” Joe Nuess said. “They were out there running around like 4- or 5-year-olds.”
Earlier this year, Freitas was casting around for subjects he could use for his senior project. He’s interested in medicine and medical research, and so he looked for information about genetic engineering.
“I looked in the phone book and on the Internet,” he said. “It’s pretty hard.”
Then one of his teachers spotted a Spokesman-Review story about Poovaiah, who discovered the genetic trigger for controlling the height of plants. Freitas began calling Poovaiah, and then went to Pullman to interview him.
Last week, Freitas spent two days in Pullman, working in the lab and staying in Poovaiah’s home. He’s planning another trip to the Palouse in the next couple of months.
Joe Nuess, who runs a photo studio in Medical Lake, was as impressed by the lab work as Freitas.
“I told him to bring some of the bacteria home so we could put them in the fish tank and watch them glow,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”