NEWPORT BEACH — Two Sage Hill School science classes recently attained a college graduate-level achievement — their research published by an international scientific database.
Accelerated biology teacher Tyler Zarubin's students decoded the DNA of two species of — you guessed it — sage plants on campus and documented the plant's genetic sequence for the gene involved in the breakdown of sugar, a particular gene that has never been researched.
"I want to teach them like a scientist, not a student," Zarubin said.
The investigative research project was done by two of Zarubin's junior-level classes — about 27 students — during the spring semester who finished up the work in the summer.
The students extracted the DNA from a black sage and California sagebrush, isolated the portion of DNA they wanted to study and documented the genetic sequence.
It was then up to two students, Manuel O'Brien, 17, and Zayd Simjee, 16, both incoming seniors, who volunteered two weeks of their summer to analyze the research and submit it for publication.
"I'm really proud of the work they did," Zarubin said. "They're really, really smart guys."
Both seniors said they wanted to see the culmination of their semester-long work.
"For me, it felt unfinished," Zayd said.
The research project was graduate-level work, but Zarubin said he didn't have any concerns about it being too difficult for his students.
Zarubin, whose background is in research, said his goal was to give his students a taste of what being a scientist is all about.
With that, came the possibility of the project not working out, he said.
"I did tell them there was a possibility we would fail to publish this sequence," he said.
The possibility of failing aside, the challenge in the beginning was just figuring out how to interpret the instructions, Manuel said.
"In the beginning, we were kind of lost," Zayd said.
Science department Chairman Todd Haney said letting the students figure out the problems on their own was one of the advantages of the projects.
"We let them troubleshoot and work out problems for themselves," he said.
It also familiarized the students with scientific procedures, and unlike a working science lab, they also saw a project through to completion, Haney said.
The project got easier for the students as they went along and turned out to be a valuable experience, Manuel said.
"You already know how to apply what you learned in the book to the lab," he said.
Future students will continue to gain that valuable experience. Zarubin plans to continue the project.
"There are hundreds of species of plants on this campus," he said, "and there all waiting to be sequenced."