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High school project leads to Whitworth and, eventually, Harvard

Thu., Dec. 27, 2012

Forrest Ireland and Marina DeFrates were part of a small group of students at North Central High School who successfully sequenced 9,100-year-old bison DNA.

The project, which started in 2010, helped develop the students’ budding interest in science and its eventual success brought recognition to the high school’s Institute of Science and Technology.

“It gave her a real taste of science in a way she wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten in terms of lab work,” said DeFrates’ father, Bruce DeFrates. “Sequencing DNA is not a common high school project.”

The younger DeFrates, who was a junior when the project started, has been accepted into Harvard University where she plans to study neurobiology. But she delayed her enrollment in favor of taking a gap year; she returned home in December from a three-month journey in South America.

“I was taking a break, doing some soul searching,” she said.

Ireland, 19, is a sophomore at Whitworth University, pursuing a double major in math and biology. He hopes to move on to graduate studies in molecular biology.

The project “definitely gave me some insights into DNA,” said Ireland. “I’m majoring in biology because of that experience. The teachers definitely influenced that.”

Although Ireland was high school valedictorian, he says college academics has been “a much bigger stretch.” After readjusting his study habits for college, he’s doing well and believes his high school experience helped.

To give back to the school that gave him so much, Ireland tutors students in math and science at North Central.

DeFrates graduated from North Central in June and left for South America in September.

The 17-year-old traveled to Ecuador and Peru with 11 others through a Portland State University program called Carpe Diem. The students learn about community development, language and environmental conservation while staying with host families.

DeFrates plans to work until it’s time for orientation at Harvard in April. “I really didn’t expect to get in, but I applied … and when I got in, I thought: I can’t pass up this opportunity,” she said.

Said her father, “I think her experience there (North Central) helped her get into Harvard.”

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