University of Calgary

A taste of research

U of C students get taste of real research

Dena Sawchuk, a third-year biological sciences student, is looking at how artificial sweeteners are metabolized.
Dena Sawchuk, a third-year biological sciences student, is looking at how artificial sweeteners are metabolized.
/ Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

New biological science labs link research to real world

By Leanne Yohemas

What could be more real than what’s for lunch?

Students majoring in biological sciences in the Faculty of Science are being asked to bring to class whatever is in their fridges to help them learn more about genetics and biochemistry. It’s all part of giving science students more opportunities for hands-on learning as well as making what they study more relevant.

Isabelle Barrette-Ng, a biological sciences instructor, helped create the new inquiry-based laboratory exercises with the help of four other faculty members and an infusion of $66,000 from the university’s Teaching and Learning Fund.

She says the goal of the new curriculum is to make connections between courses and labs in hopes of better engaging students.

“I wanted them to take what they learned into the winter session and to make it appeal to their daily lives,” says Barrette-Ng.

Students are encouraged to bring food from home and, once in the lab, extract DNA to amplify it and determine whether there is any foreign DNA in the food.

“The sequences we’re looking for is what companies use to make genetically modified food,” says Barrette-Ng, adding that students have examined everything from organic tomatoes to Doritos and veggie burgers.

She says students have made some surprising finds, including the discovery that an organic tomato—and many other foods—aren’t as pure as one would think.

“Who knew that organically grown tomatoes would be genetically modified?” asks third-year biochemistry student Salwa Said. It may be a surprise, but it’s not a new discovery in the wider world of science.

But Barrette-Ng says the students’ research will open doors to topics they can build projects around, which will carry on throughout their courses and labs in genetics and biochemistry.

Dena Sawchuk, a third-year biological sciences student, is looking at how artificial sweeteners are metabolized.

That’s a hot topic, because there isn’t a lot known about how such sweeteners react with things like probiotics, both of which are often used in yogurts, says Barrette-Ng. Probiotics are bacteria and yeasts put into food to potentially create health benefits.

“There’s lots of controversy around probiotics,” says Sawchuk. “We would like to find out if there is any probiotic benefit at all when artificial sweeteners are broken down.”

Barrette-Ng has noticed that students are far more engaged with this new type of lab. And, they will also have something to show at the end of the labs: an independent research paper.

“They are much more excited. Doing the labs are fun and not a chore for them,” adds Barrette-Ng.