HAMDEN – Sister Mary Jane Paolella has put Sacred Heart Academy (SHA) on the map as a go-to destination high school for young women interested in the sciences and, most notably, in genetic mapping.
“[She] is a pioneer in genomic sequencing education,” said Jack G. Chirikjian, professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology at Georgetown University. “She is a national treasure.”
Dr. Chirikjian said the Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus also is a great teacher.
“I have visited her class at the Sacred Heart Academy and observed her outstanding teaching and the excitement of her students on actual science projects,” he noted. “She integrates new advances and concepts in her science classes and continues to link theory to applications of genomic DNA sequencing technology.”
This year, Sister Mary Jane launches into her 26th year of teaching. Over the years, the reputation of SHA in the advanced scientific world of sequencing the DNA of genes has grown greatly.
Her students have presented their research at prestigious national science conferences every year since 1998. They will have published 28 sequences on the U.S. government’s genetic bank by the end of this year. And in 2010, Intel Corporation recognized SHA as one of the nation’s three best high schools for science.
“I don’t know of any school in the country doing in-house gene sequencing,” said Sister Mary Jane.
“We’re combining real technology used by scientists and engineers to do critical thinking and problem-solving,” she said, noting that the students have sequenced the genes of horseshoe crabs, scallops and, currently, bovine DNA.
“Once you know the sequence of genes, you can then try to uncover what happens when the sequence goes awry … such as to look for the causes of disease,” she explained. Clearly proud of her students, she observed, “It’s a real exercise in critical thinking. The students are excited about it and have taken it to a professional level.”
It all started 20 years ago after she happened to read about a University of Washington professor who was sequencing DNA with high school students.
“I called and said, ‘If you’re doing that on the West Coast, then I want to know how we could sequence DNA on the East Coast,’” said Sister Mary Jane.
Not only did the professor tell her what to do, but she happened to know a genetics lab manager at Yale University. That twist of fate began a long partnership with the late Wes Bonds, who became very interested in Sister Mary Jane’s evolving passion.
To her surprise, Mr. Bonds began teaching and working with the SHA students. He introduced them to the first of many top scientific conferences where they have presented research posters over the past two decades; and began to team-teach DNA sequencing workshops for local high school students with Sister Mary Jane on weekends and during the summer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at other institutions.
“I can’t even count the number of workshops we held,” laughed Sister Mary Jane. Nor does she have any idea of the hundreds of students she’s impacted over the past 20-plus years.
In 1998, another stroke of luck occurred when SHA students were invited to write an abstract for an Institute of Genomic Research conference that they had attended the previous year.
As her students sat at a dinner table talking with Russian and German scientists, an employee from Applied Biosystems encouraged Sister Mary Jane to apply for a grant for a sequencer. To her amazement, the result was an award of $75,000 to SHA for an automated sequencer, computer and free training and maintenance.
The SHA program has launched careers. Students have gone on to become oncology specialists, international researchers, lawyers and medical doctoral candidates.
One of them was JoMichelle Corrales-Kean, now vice president and medical director for a medical communications agency in New York City, who holds a doctorate in biomedical sciences from the New York University School of Medicine.
"I definitely think having her as a teacher in high school was a major tipping point in my life,” she said. Being taught by Sister Mary Jane (in 1992) gave her “a huge advantage” by exposing her to “scientific technologies that most students wouldn’t be exposed to until the college level.”
“She was amazing,” she continued, “a gift. I cry when I think of everything I owe her.”
Ever curious, Sister Mary Jane’s study of genetics led her to another area of interest – ethics. The sister noted that during her summer workshops at Georgetown, “I spent hours of my free time in the library reading like crazy.”
That has resulted in an ethics class Sister Mary Jane teaches, exploring ethical issues from eugenics to stem cell research, genetic testing, research with gene therapy and related science.
Sister Mary Jane has also helped to launch a summer internship program for students to be mentored by professionals, and has reviewed protocols on human subject research for the institutional review board (IRB) since 2001.
“The staff of our entire science department has built a program that is attracting students,” she said, noting that in addition to gene sequencing, the academy offers microbiology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and forensics.
“The minimum science requirement is three years of science, but our students take three and a half to seven classes in four years,” said Sister Mary Jane. “And almost every student elects to take physics.”
Her program has drawn the attention of the scientific community. She recalled that when organizers for one conference inquired about the quality of the SHA program from a Quinnipiac University professor, they were told, “If it comes from that school, you can believe that it’s true. Let them come.”
To mark the science teacher’s 25 years of innovation and dedication at SHA, the academy has launched the Sr. Mary Jane Paolella, ASCJ, ‘65 Fund for Innovation. Interest earned on the fund will be used to support innovative faculty endeavors.
Currently, she has added epigenetics to the curriculum, studying how the environment and other external factors impact genes. “Every year I want to take the students to a different level,” she said. “I like to see how much I can stretch their minds.”