Making Biochem More Accessible: the Virtual Biochemistry Day Outreach Event for High School Students

Written by Kate Jiang

On March 24th, 2021, the Department of Biochemistry’s Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (WIDE) committee held their virtual Biochemistry Day for high school students across Toronto. Biochemistry Day is an outreach initiative for students from underserved areas to learn more about post-secondary education and careers in science. While originally planned as an in-person event for students to visit the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, it was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic; despite that, the event turned out to be a great success, with positive feedback regarding the student-led interactive activities as well as the Q & A session. Transcripts spoke with Mikaela Palandra, a graduate student in the department and a member of the WIDE committee, to learn more about Biochemistry Day and the story behind it.

Students were recruited through Let’s Talk Science’s partnerships with local secondary schools as part of their initiative to bring educational science programs and activities to students in designated “priority” neighborhoods, as defined by the City of Toronto. Let’s Talk Science advertised Biochemistry Day to their partner schools, and teachers responded with students who were interested. A total of twenty-one students were involved in the event, and they came from secondary schools in “priority” areas from all grades, including some adult learners.

The event began with a Q&A panel consisting of an undergraduate student, Jasmine Ryu Won Kang, a research faculty member from the department, Dr. Haley Wyatt, and an industry professional, Dr. Pamela Alsabeh, answering questions from the students about how to pursue higher education in science and where that education may take them in their careers. Following that, students were brought on a virtual “lab tour”, featuring videos made by graduate students Katrina Mekhail, Amy Wu, and Zaky Hassan, showcasing their laboratory environment. Finally, students were divided into two break-out rooms, each led by volunteers from the department, to perform at-home science experiments demonstrating fundamental biochemical concepts.

Of course, without in-person access to lab equipment, students could not run many standard lab techniques like those that involve handling microbes or gel electrophoresis. This means the team would have to get creative with alternative experiments using common household objects or chemicals that are not too dangerous to handle. In the end, a package was shipped to each student prior to the event which contained the materials that the students could use to follow along with the experimental demonstration.

The first experiment focused on teaching the different properties of macromolecules—lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. The presence of lipids was evaluated by rubbing a substance onto a brown paper bag—lipids would be absorbed by the bag, making it translucent, while non-lipids would result in the same dried bag. Carbohydrates were identified with the classic iodine-starch test, which gives a blue color when the orange-colored iodine is added to a sample containing starch. Testing for protein, on the other hand, was not as straightforward. “Obviously sending Coomassie [stain] by mail is not really a possibility,” said Mikaela. Fortunately, the team was able to get urinalysis test strips that could detect the presence of proteins, which they included in the package for students.

The second experiment looked at enzymatic activity, specifically the activity of catalase, a common enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide into hydrogen and oxygen. For this purpose, a mini potato as well as a sample of hydrogen peroxide (the low concentration H2O2 sold in drug stores, rather than the lab stock) were sent to students. During the demonstration, students cut the potato into pieces and subjected each piece to different treatments. In the control group, students looked for bubbling that occurs when the potato comes into contact with hydrogen peroxide, pointing to catalase activity; however, if the catalase is denatured with heat (i.e. when microwaving the potato) or with acid (i.e. when pouring vinegar on potato) then the bubbling will not occur, allowing students to learn about the stability of enzymes.

In addition to the experiment kits, each student received a lab coat with a silk-screened Faculty of Medicine logo, which they could wear to the virtual event. “Even though they were not actually in a lab, they could put on their lab coats and do experiments along [with us].” Also included in the package were science-themed crochet plushies—organisms, organelles, flasks and test tubes. These adorable plushies were made by the WIDE committee members Amy Wu and Katrina Mekhail. “That was a nice chance to support members of our Biochemistry department community, as well as to send cute gifts to all of the students that participated in [the event],” said Mikaela.

Next year, Mikaela hopes to bring students to the campus for an in-person event for the entire afternoon. An important aspect of this, she mentioned, is to be more accessible by providing transportation for students to get to the downtown campus. As for the format of the event, she would like to keep the Q&A panel, and potentially include a discussion panel with the graduate students. “I think they (the students) all had a lot of things they wanted to know about: what it was like to do science, going into science as an undergrad, as well as [what] a career would be like, and what your daily life would look like…We got a lot of good questions and discussions going.” Having both an undergraduate student and people who are already further in their careers as the panelists worked out well, Mikaela mentioned, in terms of addressing different types of questions from different perspectives. Finally, with in-person access to the teaching lab space and the laboratory equipment, she hopes to incorporate more activities for the students; one example would be making “yeast art” using different budding yeast strains expressing colorful pigments, which has been done in an undergraduate teaching lab course.

Support from within the department, from both faculty and students, will clearly be important for these events in the future. Mikaela said the team would appreciate it if faculty members offer their labs for tours, or give talks to the high school students. “It would be nice to get more access to some of the faculty members for the students, so they (the students) know that their time is being respected, and that they are being welcomed by the senior members of the department.” The team is also interested in recruiting more graduate student volunteers to speak to the high school students on panels or discussions, as well as to lead the activities. “We had six grad students helping out with the event this time; if we were planning to expand beyond that, it would be great to get even more people involved.”

In the long run, Mikaela envisions an ongoing mentorship program for the high school students that participated in the event. Let’s Talk Science, the organization that the WIDE committee collaborated with to recruit high school students, has its own mentorship program, but Mikaela would like to have a direct line of communication with the department. She said that the point of the event, in addition to exposing students to science, was to open the doors to students who want to do research. “Eventually, if they want to go to U of T, the Biochemistry department is a place where they can get research opportunities. Maintaining an ongoing line of communication might be able to facilitate things like that.” The process of setting up a mentorship program could be challenging, but Mikaela said the team could learn from the system that Let’s Talk Science has in place and establish one from within the department going forward.

Mikaela Palandra is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry and a member of the Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (WIDE) committee. You can find out more about the WIDE committee at their website: https://biochemwide.wordpress.com/. The Biochemistry Day, in collaboration with Let’s Talk Science, was funded in part by the Centre for Community Partnerships at University of Toronto.



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