Student Stories

CRISPR Mini Course Rearranges Students’ Ideas about Genetics

Stephanie Wong-Noonan with students during a class session

Stephanie Wong-Noonan (right) discusses a paper with students during a class session.

It’s a lot of fun to teach a course that’s constantly evolving.

Stephanie Wong-Noonan

Dante Mancini, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in chemical engineering with an additional in biomedical engineering, self-designed an immunology track in biomedical activity.

Because he was forging a new path, he was able to take classes outside of the traditional biomedical engineering track, and he wanted to learn more about genetics and new technologies.

“I was working with my academic advisor, and there were two courses that would fit the requirement,” Mancini said. “One was genome editing biotechnology. I really like the genome editing perspective of it because it’s something I’ve never had much experience with.”

Genome editing biotechnology 03-728 was developed in 2016 by Aaron Mitchell, former head of the Department of Biological Sciences, as a half-semester course known as a mini course. The class investigates new research into CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique, which was developed in 2012 and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. In 2018, the course was folded into advanced genetics 03-730.

“It’s been interesting reading papers from the perspective of an outsider,” Mancini said. “What could have been their thought process when designing the experiment? What kind of variables are they trying to play with? What is their desired outcome?”

Stephanie Wong-Noonan, assistant teaching professor of biological sciences, revived the course as a mini this year.

“I had taught CRISPR in modern biology [03-121] at a very basic level, so it was a good opportunity to read some papers about it and feel connected to the research field,” Wong-Noonan said. “It’s just a really interesting subject.”

CRISPR-Cas9 works by creating RNA that binds to specific targets in a cell’s DNA. From there, researchers can either add or delete the DNA sequences of certain genes. Though CRISPR works best in mammals, researchers — such as Carnegie Mellon’s own Veronica Hinman — are applying it to other organisms such as starfish and sea urchins.

The course primarily focuses on reading literature on a range of topics from novel ways to use CRISPR-Cas9 to the ethics of using CRISPR on animals and humans. Wong-Noonan gathered some of the newest research including papers published in the last few years.

“We do some lectures with discussions, where I’d pose questions for the students to discuss and then report out what they’re talking about,” Wong-Noonan said. “The most fun is actually hearing the students get involved and ask a ton of questions.”

The class draws undergraduate students like Mancini, master’s students and Ph.D. candidates.

Sarah Sonbati, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, took the course as a jumping off point to develop her doctoral research proposal. She intends to use CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically alter yeast cells into producing proteins in order to gauge how certain drugs and compounds can affect cells. She learned a few things about CRISPR thanks to YouTube, but this class offered her a way to ask questions and obtain a better understanding of CRISPR methods.

“I’m just really enjoying the class discussions, listening to what other people have to say and then being able to reply back,” Sonbati said. “You hear what other people have to say and learn about where they’re coming from, with their knowledge. It’s helping me reshape my thinking.”

The mini course will be offered again in Fall 2023. Wong-Noonan plans to enhance the course by adding more cutting-edge research papers.

“It’s a lot of fun to teach a course that’s constantly evolving,” Wong-Noonan said. “We’re in the midst of CRISPR discovery, so new things are being found every day.”

■ Kirsten Heuring