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High Schoolers Help Grow ‘Genetically Engineered Machines’

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By Kathleen Masterson

 

Taking molecular parts from living organisms to engineer biological systems sounds a bit like science fiction, but with the help of University of California San Francisco researchers, high school students are diving into this growing field of synthetic biology.

It’s all part of a global synthetic biology competition called iGEM.

<p>The international competition aims to engage students in the constantly evolving world of synthetic biology, which is part molecular biology, part systems biology and part genetic engineering.

While the “Giant Jamboree” is a fun, lively event, the lab work and presentation preparation are serious work – and real science findings come out of the competition.

This year UCSF’s team won “Best Presentation,” competing against 225 teams hailing from across the globe. Of the two UCSF presenters, one was Eleanor Amidei, who was 17 years old at the time.

To prepare for the competition, the students spend all summer designing their experiments, running them, building a website, developing a presentation and a few other requirements, including submitting a genetic fragment to the synthetic biology bank at MIT.

“At first it was really overwhelming,” said Amidei, who is now a freshmen at UC Berkeley. “It was just scary to be thrown into lab environment. But you kind of just pick up the work as you’re going; you go with it, you read articles, you study more about what you’re doing and it becomes easy, it becomes second nature.”

When Wendell Lim, PhD, formed the first UCSF team eight years ago, he needed to include participants younger than graduate students to meet the iGEM contest eligibility requirement. Instead of bringing in college students, he partnered with high school teacher George Cachianes who teaches a two-year biotechnology program at Lincoln High School in San Francisco.

Every year, a few of the top high school students are invited to join the iGEM team.

This year’s team also partnered with UC Berkeley undergradswho bring additional programming and graphic design elements to the team skill set. Several PhD candidates and post-docs from Lim’s lab and the Graduate Division also serve as mentors for the team.

Lim said the experience benefits both the high school students and the PhD students, who learn to be better mentors.

“What is really unique about this experience is that most of the time, when you do an internship in a lab, you’re assigned to one person who tells you what to do, who gives you instructions,” he said.

But here the group is really a team, said Lim. There’s a lot of brainstorming, and the students, few undergrads, postdocs, all really work together to shape the project. “We’ve defined the sandbox we’ll play in, but exactly what we do and how we do it – they’re a part of defining.”

This year the “sandbox” focused on testing yeast cells to determine if they exhibit collective behavior.

That’s a loose term for the “group think” behavior exhibited by seemingly choreographed flocks of birds or tightly synchronized schools of fish swirling in a flash. This kind of group response also occurs in some cells and even electrons – and in tiny yeast cells.

The team discovered that the presence of the group actually influences the behavior of the yeast cells.

Though the cells are genetically the same, they respond differently when isolated and respond in synchronized manner when together as a group.

This behavior hadn’t been shown in yeast, said Kara Helmke, the education and outreach coordinator for UCSF’s Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology who works with the iGEM teams.

“The findings were something we didn’t even realize would be possible,” Helmke said. “It was great we could demonstrate it.”

Beyond getting results in the lab, the UCSF team is producing new scientists: Of the more than 60 high school alumni of the program, all are pursuing or have completed science degrees.

Community

Students, Community Organizations Ask Judge to Order Mental Health Services, Internet Access

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

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Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

The May 3 request for immediate relief comes six months after the plaintiffs sued the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Now, they are seeking a preliminary injunction to force the state to respond. Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith has set June 4 for a hearing.

“The state cannot just write big checks and then say, ‘We’re not paying attention to what happens here,’” said Mark Rosenbaum, a directing attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Public Counsel and the law firm Morrison and Foerster filed the lawsuit on behalf of 15 children and two organizations: The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition, which is based in Los Angeles. 

In their initial, 84-page filing, they claimed the state had shirked its responsibility to ensure that low-income Black and Latino children were receiving adequate distance learning, with computers and internet access the Legislature said all children were entitled to. Instead, they argued, children “lost precious months” of learning, falling further behind because of poor internet connections, malfunctioning computers and a lack of counseling and extra academic help.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic was unavoidable, these harms were not. Yet for most of this period, state officials constitutionally charged with ensuring that all of California’s children receive at least basic educational equality have remained on the sidelines,” the plaintiffs argued.

Angela J., of Oakland, whose three children are plaintiffs in the case, elaborated on the difficulties they encountered during a year under distance learning in a declaration filed with the latest plaintiffs’ motion. 

Although she is president of the PTA, her school has been uncommunicative and unresponsive to requests for technical help and lesson plans, she wrote. Her children are falling behind and “suffering emotionally,” she said. Her third-grade twins are supposed to be doing multiplication and division but are struggling with subtraction. “They are supposed to be able to write essays, but they can barely write two sentences.”

The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition have stepped in with technical help and support for hundreds of families that district schools should have provided, the plaintiffs’ motion said. The Community Coalition hired tutors and partnered with YMCA-Crenshaw to provide in-person learning pods with 100 laptops on site. The Oakland Reach hired 19 family liaisons, started a preschool literacy program and offered online enrichment programs for students.

Months passed, infection rates declined, schools made plans to reopen, and then in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $6.6 billion in COVID-19 relief that school districts can put toward summer school, tutoring, mental health, teacher training and other academic supports. By June 1 — less than a month from now — districts and charter schools are required to complete a report, after consulting with parents and teachers, on how they plan to spend the money.

But the plaintiffs argue in their latest filing, “this funding comes with no oversight, assistance, or enforcement to ensure that the funds will be used properly to address the issues relating to digital devices, learning loss, and mental health support.” And there’s no requirement that districts begin this summer to address the harm that the most impacted students have felt, the statement said.“Schools are indeed ‘reopening’ to one degree or another, but absent a mandate that all students receive what they need to learn and to catch up, or any guidance from the State that would help them do so,” the filing said.

In a statement, California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who “are vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities,” and cited the department’s work obtaining hundreds of thousands of computers, expanding internet access and providing guidance to educators on distance learning for highest-needs students.

“As we work to return children back to the classroom, we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved,” the statement said.

In passing legislation accompanying the state budget last June, the Legislature laid out requirements for distance learning that school districts must meet to receive school funding. They included providing all students with access to a computer and the internet. 

Missing, however, was an enforcement requirement, like the monitoring that’s used to verify that students in low-income schools have textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified classroom teachers. That system was set up in 2004 through a settlement of Williams v. State of California, in which low-income families sued the state over its failure to assure safe and equitable conditions in schools.  

At the time, Rosenbaum was a lead attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which brought the lawsuit with Public Advocates and other civil rights organizations.

Despite efforts by Thurmond and districts over the past year to get technology in place, Thurmond estimated in October that as many as 1 million students lacked devices or sufficient bandwidth to adequately participate in distance learning from home. Between federal and state funding, districts have plenty of money to buy computers, and the Legislature is considering several bills to fund internet access statewide (see here and here). 

They won’t solve the immediate challenge, but they could become relevant if there were to be a settlement in this case, as in the Williams lawsuit.

Among their requests, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to:

  • Determine which students lack devices and connectivity and ensure that districts immediately provide them;
  • Ensure that all students and teachers have access to adequate mental health supports;
  • Provide weekly outreach to families of all low-income Black or Latino students to aid in transitioning back to in-person learning through August 2022;
  • Provide a statewide plan to ensure that districts put in place programs to remedy the learning loss caused by remote learning.

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Barbara Lee

In a Letter to Voters, Rep. Barbara Lee Reflects on Pres. Biden’s First 100 Days

I was particularly struck seeing the Bay Area represented on the dais by Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi. That was the first time in history two women have held that position. It was reflective of the price women have paid to get to this point.

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Dear Friend,

     Last week marked the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. On (April 28), President Biden presented his vision for an American future that builds back better after some of our most challenging years. 

     I sat in the chamber and listened to President Biden reflect on his first 100 days, confidently reporting that we have a stronger economy, more resilient pandemic response, and a unified mission of building back better and bolder.

     I was particularly struck seeing the Bay Area represented on the dais by Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi. That was the first time in history two women have held that position. It was reflective of the price women have paid to get to this point. While this was a historic moment, as Vice President Harris pointed out, it is past time that it becomes “normal.”

      During his speech, President Biden discussed his recently unveiled American Families Plan (AFP). The AFP is a bold step in advancing racial equity and closing the gap in education, childcare, wealth inequality, and more. By extending provisions under the American Rescue Plan (ARP), and through programs of its own, the AFP would lift more than 10 million people out of poverty.

      I am excited to support this plan and similar efforts to improve equity in our school and childcare systems, and to combat inequality in the East Bay and across the country.

     The AFP offers an extended tax cut for families with children and American workers. This includes the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This will work to mitigate the growing wealth inequality that we see in America and invest in low- and middle-income families who help our economy thrive.

     Additional provisions of the AFP include:

  • Making child care affordable by ensuring that families will pay no more than 7% of their income on high-quality child care
  • Creating a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program through worker payments of up to $4,000 a month
  • Expanding school meal programs and summer EBT funds
  • Extending ACA premium tax credits that were expanded under the American Rescue Plan
  • Providing up to $1,400 in additional assistance to low-income students by increasing the Pell Grant award
  • Addressing teacher shortages and improving teacher preparation, including programs that strengthen pipelines for teachers of color

     (Last) week, we heard about some of the progress we have made in the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration, but we cannot let our foot off the gas. Among many challenges ahead, we need we need to address disparities in our public health system, do more to help families that are struggling through this economic crisis, dismantle structural racism, implement police reform and immigration reform and address the climate crisis. 

     We still have much work to do, but I am committed to continue fighting for you.

     As always, my office is here for you. If you need help with a federal issue, please call my Oakland office at (510) 764-0370. You can also connect with me via email, Facebook Twitter , and Instagram .

Please continue to stay healthy and safe.

Best,

Barbara Lee

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Bay Area

Most Californians Worry Schools Won’t Reopen Fully Next Fall, Poll Says

The majority say they approve of how Newsom handled schools this year.

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More than 4 in 5 California adults, including public school parents, believe that the pandemic has caused children, especially low-income children and English learners, to fall behind academically.

  Six in 10 Californians are concerned that schools will not be open for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released on April 28.

  The annual survey of Californians’ perspectives on education also found that a majority approved of the way Gov. Gavin Newsom has handled K-12 public schools, although opinions were split along partisan lines, with 22% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats supporting him on the issue.

  And perhaps in an indication of the erosion of support for public schools, 42% of parents say they would send their youngest child to a private school if cost and location were not at issue. This compares with 31% who would choose a traditional public school, 14% a charter school, and 13% a religious school. The preference for a private school increased from 35% last year and 31% two years ago.

  The survey of 1,602 adults over 18 was taken from April 1-14 and was offered in English or a choice of Spanish and three other languages. The margin of error was 3.4%, plus or minus, overall, and 7.4%, plus or minus, for the 295 respondents who are public school parents.

  Facing a recall election, Newsom can take solace in the poll’s finding that a majority of Californians (57% of adults, 64% of public-school parents) approve of how he has handled K-12 education.

  “Majorities of Californians approve of the way that Governor Newsom is handling the state’s K-12 public schools and school reopening, while they remain deeply divided along party lines,” said Mark Baldassare, president, and CEO of PPIC.

  However, a year ago, when the last survey was taken weeks after schools closed quickly in response to the first throes of the pandemic, his approval marks were higher, with 73% of adults and 78% of public school parents expressing approval.

  The poll, which focused on education, also found:

  Of those who said children were falling behind academically during the pandemic, 60% said that was happening by a lot and 22% by a little. The views were similar among ethnic and racial groups. Eight in 10 adults said they were concerned that low-income children were falling farther behind other children. More Blacks and Latinos were very concerned about this than whites;

  Amid continuing debates and lawsuits claiming that schools aren’t opening quickly enough, slightly more adults overall than public school parents said that schools should at least be partially open now (53% vs. 48%), while 28% of all adults and 27% of public school parents said that schools should be fully open now;

  Looking ahead to the fall, 61% of all adults said they were concerned that K-12 schools would not be open for full-time in-person instruction (24% very concerned, 37% somewhat concerned), and two-thirds of public school parents said they were concerned (25% very concerned, 41% somewhat concerned).

  When it comes to their own schools, two-thirds of adults said they approved of how their school district handled closures during the pandemic. Support was highest in the Los Angeles area (74%) and the Inland Empire (68%) and lowest in Orange County and San Diego (54%). Approval among public school parents was 72%.

  The clear majority of all adults said that teachers’ salaries in their communities are too low. About 1 in 3 said salaries are just about right while 7% said they are too high, and 3% said they didn’t know. Among racial and ethnic groups, 76% of Blacks said pay is too low, compared with 59% of whites, 61% of Asian Americans, and 62% of Latinos.

  Last month, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that California school districts could substitute local assessments for the state standardized test, the Smarter Balanced assessment, under some conditions. Many districts are expected to exercise that option.

  Asked whether they favor conducting year-end state testing this spring to measure the pandemic’s impact on student learning, 75% of all adults (and a similar proportion of public school parents) said they were in favor of continuing testing, with 23% opposed. Latinos were the most in favor (83%) and Blacks the least supportive (68%) with 70% of Asian Americans and whites in favor of continuing year-end testing.

  As for the perennial issue of school funding, 49% of all adults, 53% of likely voters, and 51% of public school parents said that the current level of state funding for their local public schools is not adequate — about the same level as a year ago.

  When it comes to school construction and renovation, 59% of all adults, 55% of likely voters, and 74% of public school parents said they would vote yes on a state bond measure to pay for school construction projects. Legislative leaders plan to place a bond on the state ballot in 2022.

 

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