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Honors seminar incorporates lab experimentation, analyzes DNA

The Parthenon

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012

Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 00:10


Suzann Al-Qawasmi

: Adam Shaver and Morgan Neiheisel are learning to use micropipettes, which are commonly used in molecular biology experiments to transfer small quantities of liquids.

While all honors seminars aim to provide students with an array of challenges, one seminar is taking learning to a whole new level by having students analyze their own genomic DNA.

Students in the Genetics and Learning honors seminar isolated their DNA to see whether they carried a specific variant of the ACTN3 gene, which has been linked to athletic ability. Wendy Trzyna, microbiologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Marshall University and co-instructor of the seminar, said studies on Olympic sprinters have shown that athletes are typically homozygous for the particular variant of ACTN3.

“We’re letting students look to see whether they are heterozygous, homozygous or lacking entirely of that variant of the ACTN3 gene,” Trzyna said. “If you are homozygous for a particular variant of ACTN3, studies have shown that it relates to explosive athletic ability.”

This is the second time Trzyna and James Sottile, educational psychology professors in the College of Education at Marshall, have taught the seminar, but it is the first time they included a lab with the course. Trzyna said this is the first time professors have experimented with adding a lab to an honors seminar.

“We wanted to include the lab because we wanted to give students something different,” Trzyna said. “We thought it would be beneficial for students to be able to participate in an experiment that demonstrates some of the topics we have covered in class.”

The seminar focuses on both sides of the nature versus nurture debate. Trzyna said they have been discussing which traits and characteristics are more influenced by genetics and which are more the result of environmental influences.

Trzyna said about half the class consists of non-science majors, so this was the first time in a lab for many of the students. She said including the lab in the seminar required some of those students to take a step outside their comfort zone.

“To bring non-science majors in and allow them to participate in real world science with cutting-edge technology is a very valuable experience,” Trzyna said. “That is a really important part of what we are trying to give them as an experience in an honors seminar.”

Yasmine Zeid, senior biochemistry major from Huntington said it was a new experience even for her.

“I have taken many lab classes during my time at Marshall, but I have never done something quite like this,” Zeid said. “I think the hands-on experiment really helped students gain a better understanding of how genetics can affect traits and characteristics.”

Trzyna said she thinks students learned from and responded well to the lab portion of the course. She said she and Sottile plan to include a lab again if they teach the honors seminar in the future.

Suzann Al-Qawasmi can be contacted at

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