Two SMHS Students Achieve High Levels of Success in Protein Research

Learning isn’t always fun and games, but sometimes it is. AP Biology students at St. Mary’s High School are learning about proteins by playing an innovative computer game called Foldit. And two of those students are playing at such a high level that they are contributing to scientific research in the area of protein folding.


The Foldit web site says that figuring out which structure is best for each protein is one of the hardest problems facing biologists today.


“Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins,” the site says.


Rebecca Keith, St. Mary’s AP Biology teacher, said the program has been around for about 10 years and each year it becomes more competitive. This year students must pass 32 levels of Foldit in order to play against competitors worldwide.


St. Mary’s senior Sean McGunigal and junior Eliana Wackerman have both achieved that status. McGunigal conquered the 32 levels in just two days, while Wackerman said it took her four or five days to get passed the 32 levels.


McGunigal said once he started playing Foldit, he quickly became very competitive about it.


“I’ve always been partial to puzzle games, which is what Foldit is,” he said. “And while it’s science, it’s still a game and I felt the need to win.”


Wackerman said she thinks that’s part of the genius of Foldit—that it uses something many high schoolers are already interested in, which is video games, to teach them about science. And while it’s competitive, it’s still collaborative too.


“I like that while you’re playing and it’s competitive, you are also working together to solve the problem. It has both the individual and team aspects, which I really like,” she said. “Although sometimes it’s kind of scary when I think that I’m just a junior in high school and now I’m playing against people who are older and have more experience.”


One reason Keith likes using Foldit is because while it is fun for them, it opens up new areas and ideas to students.


“It’s part of our plan to prepare for the AP exam, but also puts them in real life situations so they are collecting experience in the medical and research fields,” Keith said. “And it’s a way to show students talents they have that they may not have realized they have.”


That has certain been the case for both McGunigal and Wackerman. Both said that Foldit has helped them narrow down what they’d like to do in the future, although as of yet neither has settled on a specific career.


“For me it has ensured that I do something in the math/science area,” McGunigal said. “I’d have to be crazy not to choose one of those areas. Research is fun, but I’m not sure yet if it’s what I want to do.”


Wackerman said she had been debating between pre-med and pre-law, but after playing Foldit is now focusing more on pre-med.


“It’s helped me understand biology in a new way,” she said. “So now I am leaning more toward pre-med and Foldit is why.”


AP Biology is new to St. Mary’s this year, but Keith has taught the course, and used Foldit, with four classes at other schools. Keith said in those classes combined she had only one student make it to the international competitive level, and that was when the standard was lower.


“Each year Foldit becomes more selective in how students get into the position to compete internationally,” Keith said. “To have two students from one class make it, even as it’s become a more selective process, is pretty amazing.”


By Amy G. Partain, Communication Associate
St. Mary’s High School

Below, junior Eliana Wackerman and senior Sean McGunigal show how they are using the computer Foldit to learn about proteins and amino acids.

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