By Margaret King
Dmytro “Dima” Ilnystkyy wants to become a genetics researcher in hopes of finding ways to prevent age-related diseases. In Futures Life Sciences classes from UC San Diego Extension, he got a real-life preview of his chosen field by conducting hands-on lab research on genetic changes linked to the aging process.
“This program is perfect for me,” says Dima, a junior at Poway High School. “I want to have a career where I research the genetics of aging. I want to extend people’s lifespans and make their lives better.”
Dima recently completed the two-part Futures Life Sciences program offered by Extension in partnership with Boz Life Science Research and Teaching Institute. In the first eight-week course, Cellular Biology, students explored how chemicals fed to microscopic worms cause genetic changes that make cells age faster. In the second class, Neurobiology, students looked at differences in gene expression in the brains of male and female fruit flies.
The courses are part of Extension’s Futures program, which allows high school students to master high-demand career skills and earn Extension credits. Courses are grouped under headings like Formulate Your Future for life sciences and Program Your Future for coding. Scholarships are available to cover course costs.
Futures Life Sciences classes are held two evenings a week at the Pacific Beach labs of Boz Institute, a nonprofit that provides full-immersion programs where students synthesize life-science fundamentals, review literature, formulate hypotheses and design experiments. Students work under the guidance of actual life-science researchers.
Dima came to the United States from Ukraine with his family when he was 6 years old. He spoke no English but learned the new language quickly. Going through school, he took biology and chemistry and developed an interest in science.
A few years ago, he decided on a career goal: using genetics to stave off the debilitating effects of aging. “At some point I realized that aging is just another disease that could be cured,” he says.
He aspires to become a genetics researcher rather than a doctor who treats individual patients. Doing research about the causes of disease “allows you to help more people at once,” he notes. He was looking for a way to get research experience when he heard about the Futures classes and decided to enroll.
Students in the classes do extensive hands-on lab work on a microscopic scale. In Cellular Biology, students fed a chemical called GenX, used in nonstick coatings, to tiny C. elegans worms. Then students extracted the worms’ RNA to see how the chemical affected the activity of certain genes.
In the Neurobiology class, students extracted RNA from the brains of fruit flies and looked at the differences in gene expression between male and female flies. The goal was to establish a baseline of data for further research on how toxic chemicals affect the flies’ genes.
“I really enjoyed the hands-on activities because I felt that I was in a real lab setup,” Dima says. “I especially enjoyed working with the fruit flies.”
Students started by sorting the flies by sex. “You put them to sleep with a CO2 gun, and then you have a few minutes to separate them as fast as possible between the two genders,” Dima says. You can tell the flies apart because the females are bigger and have a more pointed body, he notes.
Then students conducted delicate microsurgeries to extract the flies’ brains. “We use two micro-pincers to hold the fly in a liquid. Then it’s a complicated process of taking off the fly body and removing both the eyes to reveal the brain,” he says.
Dima appreciated the atmosphere of the classes. “I enjoyed the way the course was taught in a no-stress environment,” he says. “We weren’t just learning facts from a textbook. We were doing the same procedures as the instructors.”
He found the subject matter challenging but not overwhelming: “We were working with topics that get taught at a college level, but the instruction was very clear, and at the end everyone understood the course requirements.”
In addition to lab techniques, students got coaching on communication and presentation skills. “We were exposed to a mock scientific conference where each group had to present their own poster about their research,” Dima says. “We were presenting to a group of knowledgeable scientists who asked a lot of questions and tried to pick apart our research.”
Futures instructors helped the students prepare for the grilling, he says: “We were taught how to refer back to our poster and our previous knowledge and not to guess if we didn’t know the correct answer.”
The courses were time-consuming, and Dima had to balance them with competing for Poway High’s varsity swim team and Speech and Debate team, as well as taking part in ballroom dance competitions.
“I’ve had to make a lot of compromises,” he says. “I’ve also learned to use all of my free time whenever I have it, even if it’s only 10 minutes – I can get a lot done in those little chunks of time between activities.”
He is still weighing his college options, but UC San Diego is one of his top choices. The Futures teachers – mostly undergraduate or graduate students – helped clarify his thinking. “The instructors gave us a lot of college advice,” he says. “They talked about college applications, student research and academics in college.”
Students forged close ties with the instructors and with each other, he says. “We became this very tight-knit group of people who did research together.”
Dima would definitely recommend the Futures classes to other high school students interested in life sciences: “It’s a very different style of teaching as opposed to what we get in school, and one that they probably would enjoy much more. You’re helping to do actual research.”