OCC Students Utilizing Cutting-edge Biotechnology Equipment

Mar 05, 2024

Olney Central College students can now perform genomic sequencing and DNA analysis with cutting-edge biotechnology purchased through a $5,000 OCC Foundation mini grant.

Foundation members Sherry Brauer and Brenda Glover along with Executive Director Beth Miller witnessed these capabilities firsthand as students used the new portable PCR thermocycler and gel electrophoresis to solve a crime.

In the final step of the lab exercise, Dr. Sarah Bergbower’s students utilized DNA fingerprinting to analyze DNA fragments in a sample according to their size. The result gives a barcoding appearance that is unique among individuals, and when comparing the unknown sample to known samples, identification can be made. This technique can be used to answer questions of paternity, identify victims of natural disasters and solve crimes, along with other applications.

“I was so impressed with Dr. Bergbower,” Brauer said. “Her enthusiasm for the new equipment was contagious and she did a great job of explaining to the class the relevance of these pieces of equipment and their real-world application. She spoke their language, used humor, and was totally available to the students.”

A fan of forensics on TV, Brauer found the experiments fascinating and was amazed at how the instruments uncovered DNA matches.

“The students were very engaged throughout the time I was there and excited by their findings,” she added.

With the new PCR Thermocycler, OCC students have the ability to amplify small amounts of DNA to create a DNA fingerprint. The size of a brick, it can be moved to student lab benches or taken directly into the field. It replaces the Life Science Department’s older, bulkier equipment.

“The new PCR Thermocycler operates much more quickly and will enable students to complete an entire lab exercise within a single two-hour laboratory period,” Bergbower said. “In four hours, you can have a trillion copies of the DNA.”

Along with the PCR Thermocycler, students also have access to a DNA sequencer. The size of a candy bar, it is used to automate the DNA sequencing process to determine the order of bases.

“Microbiology is quickly moving toward molecular methods, and many hospital labs are finding themselves sending samples out to reference labs for sequencing difficult organisms or specific questions of resistance when culturing takes too long or is incapable of answering a molecular question,” Bergbower said. “This will be especially helpful for our microbiology students as they can use it for real-world applications.”

Bergbower said the accompanying software is ideal for educational purposes as students can observe real-time analysis on a smartphone.

Together, the new technology will expand lab opportunities for Introduction to Biology, General Biology, Biology II and Microbiology students allowing them to gain experience conducting complex laboratory exercises before transferring to a senior institution.

“I don’t know any other community colleges that have a sequencer who are using them,” Bergbower added. “It’s really unheard of for a community college.”

Bergbower is grateful for the Foundation’s support in making the technology available to OCC students.

“As a prospective student, I wanted to know a college’s lab equipment was up to date,” she said. “Biotechnology equipment is getting more accessible, but it’s not something included in the standard budget. I’m grateful the Foundation saw a need for it. Having this cutting-edge technology puts OCC on the map.”

Brauer says providing OCC with these updated resources serves a twofold purpose. First, it enables students to carry out the same types of experiments they will undertake at a transfer institution and second, it can pique the interest of students who are curious about forensics or related fields.

She added, “I am happy that the OCC Foundation can help to provide the tools for education to inspire leaders of tomorrow.”