Franklin Regional grad, 15, studying genetics, preparing for Carnegie Mellon University |
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Patrick Varine
Above, a microscope view of three varieties of roundworm that Elena Swecker, 15, of Murrysville, studied as part of her internship at the Magee Women's Research Institute.

Elena Swecker spent part of last school year interning at the Magee-Women’s Research Institute in Pittsburgh, studying genetic mutations in roundworms. In the fall, she heads to Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a degree in computational biology.

She’s 15.

“The goal is to use the research to help map out the processes of chromosomal mis-segregation,” said Swecker, of Murrysville. “Even though we’re not very similar to worms, the genes and the way they interact are very similar.”

Chromosome segregation happens during meiotic cell division as part of the DNA replication process, and mis-segregation is a primary cause of birth defects and infertility in humans, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Working with three varieties of roundworm, Swecker introduced mutations, then used markers to identify which worms had the mutations and how each mutation distinguished the worms from one another. Her work is part of Magee investigator Judith Yanowitz’s research into maternal age and fertility .

Franklin Regional Middle School science teacher Jennifer Joyce brought Swecker to her seventh-grade class to present her research to students, who were learning about natural selection.

“We viewed (the worms) under our microscopes,” said Chloe Zucco, 13, of Murrysville.

Zucco and classmate Mary Ciaramitaro, 13, of Murrysville, were fascinated by Swecker’s presentation.

“Most of the girls and even boys were grossed out by the worms, but Chloe and I were really interested in the ideas and the research,” Ciaramitaro said.

Joyce said she has kept in touch with Swecker since having her as a student.

“I thought this was a great opportunity for our students to see a real-world application of the things we’re studying,” Joyce said.

Swecker’s presentation ties back in with the district’s ongoing mission of integrating STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — concepts at all levels of education.

“It’s important for our kids to get exposure at a young age to all the opportunities available and the places science can lead you,” Joyce said. “It’s important to me as well to have young females who can show younger female students this type of thing. Having a role model in your peer group is really critical.”

Swecker agreed.

“I feel like I’ve gotten so much from these opportunities, whether it’s biology, genetics or some other field,” she said. “I wanted to show the research, and also how to sort of balance a (school) schedule and an internship like this.”

Understanding chromosome mis-segregation could help scientists understand more about the way birth defects happen, a fact that was not lost on Zucco.

“It gets me more interested and makes me want to learn new thing,” she said. “Even if I don’t follow through with a career in this, it’s good to have learned it, and it might cause someone else to be interested and do their own research.”

Joyce said that was her goal in bringing Swecker to the class.

“Their experiment started a conversation among the class, and really good seeds can be planted through that,” Joyce said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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