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Students sample science careers while researching disease

Whitworth University profession Deanna Ojennus, left, and North Central High School teacher Randy James, center, look at tests taking place in a tub of protein gel in a laboratory at Whitworth on Friday, while student Chris Frick looks on. (Jesse Tinsley)
Whitworth University profession Deanna Ojennus, left, and North Central High School teacher Randy James, center, look at tests taking place in a tub of protein gel in a laboratory at Whitworth on Friday, while student Chris Frick looks on. (Jesse Tinsley)

Could the clues to unraveling celiac disease be found in a shovelful of Palouse dirt?

A group of North Central High School students will attempt to find out this summer as they team up with professors and students from Whitworth University as part of a special summer learning project.

The goal is to ignite scientific interest among students. The hope is to contribute in some way to the eventual development of a pill to help people who can’t tolerate foods made from wheat.

Celiac disease affects about 1 in every 133 people.

“We have an opportunity here for students to do something special,” said science teacher Randy James, who will select a group of his students to participate. “These sorts of experiences can help students realize that they can belong to the science community.”

The project will start as fieldwork. Literally. Students will turn a spade of soil near James’ home south of Spokane where pine forests give way to some of the planet’s richest wheat fields. They will then search for bacteria that are especially adept at breaking down the abundant gluten molecules in the soil.

North Central has distinguished itself with science programs for many years. James’ students can embark on a biomedical track in preparation for college.

The collaboration with Whitworth began last year and was fueled with a $15,000 grant from the Empire Health Foundation.

“We really see this as an extension of our expertise into the community,” said Lynn Noland, Whitworth’s director of sponsored programs.

Several professors will plug into the project to help the students hone their research, discern data with specialized computer programs and finally present findings in a professional format.

Celiac disease was selected as a research topic because of both current affairs and personal experience.

Gluten intolerance is becoming widely known, and food-makers have responded with a cascade of gluten-free goods.

In addition, professor Kent Jones, who teaches mathematics and computer science at Whitworth, recounted recently how his wife struggled with ailing health until she changed to a gluten-free diet. “For me, the interest in celiac disease is personal,” he said.

For Whitworth, the project is an offshoot of its new degree in bioinformatics – which melds computer science and information technology with biology and medicine.

The North Central students will get a glimpse of college life, the rigors of a science education, and an experience not often available to high school students.

They’re already part of something special. James’ classes at North Central have gone far beyond dissecting frogs and mixing hydrochloric acid and shells.

Students participate in field research and gene sequencing as they tackle mysteries of the natural world. In one project, they are studying the difference in genetic traits of bison that lived centuries ago versus those alive today in parks or on ranches.

In another they are studying a species of minnow that has survived for thousands of years in Eastern Washington, through cataclysmic ice age floods, devastating droughts, human-caused pollution and other events.

Working on celiac disease presents a real opportunity to improve lives.

“I’m a believer that students at our school can make a difference,” said James.

The celiac project already has a head start. One of professor Deanna Ojennus’ student research groups was able to place the gene that enables enzymes to break down gluten into a device that can produce the enzyme for further study.

The work may help speed research in other studies.

“We believe our work will aid research to help those with celiac disease,” Ojennus said.

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