Broadening their minds

Bensalem High School’s PJAS partners with Penn State for advanced experiment

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Meeting of the minds: Pennsbury alum and fourth-year Penn State PhD student Alex Weiner is aiding the students in Bensalem High School’s PJAS program in studying neurodegenerative diseases through the use of fruit flies. Source: Lisa Tokmajian

When it comes to their studies, the students of Bensalem High School’s Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Sciences program never take the easy road. They crave a challenge.

For some time, PJAS coordinator and AP biology teacher Lisa Tokmajian received requests from the knowledge-hungry teens for more advanced experiments and learning opportunities. Unfortunately, with limited resources at her disposal, Tokmajian was unable to oblige. That is, until her chance encounter with Alex Weiner.

In May, she found herself working an information booth alongside the fourth-year Penn State PhD student at the annual PJAS competition, which several of her students were a part of. Tokmajian learned that Weiner was a Yardley native and Pennsbury High School graduate who was studying neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, by working with fruit flies in the lab. It was the sort of elaborate project her students had been begging for.

Weiner, who has worked with PJAS since he began his undergraduate studies in 2008, offered to deliver some fruit flies and lab materials to BHS.

“One of the major aims of an academic scientist is community outreach and another is teaching. These are in addition to the research requirement. This by no means is to say that outreach is required. However, it is something I truly enjoy in addition to my love for teaching,” he said.

At the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year, Tokmajian took Weiner up on his generous offer.

“He came down after school one day and he did a whole presentation, talked to the students about the diseases,” she said.

The teens learned how to tell the difference between a male and female fly, received information on a fly’s life cycle, and perfected the art of mating the flies in order to trigger the disease in the offspring.

“He’s been in constant contact with them, shared his phone number, his email,” Tokmajian said.

The students had the freedom to conduct various experiments of their choosing. They studied whether the disease the fly was given affects its motor skills, if a certain diet influences the disease, and if memory is impaired.

Tokmajian explained that flies, rather than humans, are used to look at these diseases because of their minimal chromosomes. Though illnesses such as Alzheimer’s are unique to humans, Weiner and his peers at Penn State were able to embed the diseases in the flies through yeast.

For the past month, the PJAS group has been working diligently every day after school to monitor the flies, since they must be mated within eight hours of hatching. The students have even come to school on the occasional Saturday morning to keep an eye on things.

“They want to make sure that they’re doing everything they need to make sure their experiment is controlled, runs smoothly,” Tokmajian said. “That’s how much into this they are. They’re just super, super excited. They can’t wait to see the results.”

Though Weiner is currently studying abroad in Israel, he has full access to his phone and has been in constant contact in case anything is needed. For him, it’s a thrill to see young people who are interested in his work.

“They asked really great questions, some of which really impressed me. Throughout my experience with PJAS, I have come to realize the students who participate truly are special and usually embrace their drive to learn,” Weiner said. “And the students I met at Bensalem High School were no exception.”

Once the experiment concludes this month, Weiner plans to invite the PJAS students to the Penn State campus, where they’ll have the chance to present their findings to his professors.

“I’m really not sure what they will discover, but I will say that one key to science is that everyone approaches it differently,” he said. “For high school students trying to engage in research, this is no different. They may make connections I didn’t or come up with or questions no one has asked. Obviously they are limited with the tools at their disposal — no fancy high-powered microscopes — but I think they will be able to ask some cool questions about neurodegenerative diseases.”

Tokmajian hopes to continue working with Weiner and expand the work they’re doing into her AP class.

“This is pretty high-level what these kids are doing,” she said. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com