Modeling molecules in middle school

Modeling molecules in middle school

14-year-old achieves high rank competing with scientists worldwide

Science is a serious “game” for Joshua Randman.

Joshua Randman is part of an unusual community of scientists working on a compelling problem: Can molecules of RNA of particular shapes be designed artificially? The unique aspect of this project is that the work is being done by thousands of volunteers who test new ideas by playing games on the Internet. And Joshua Randman of Fair Lawn is a unique participant – the 14-year-old graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has worked his way up to a rank of 130 out of more than 40,000 adult players worldwide.

The project, dubbed EteRNA (pronounced eterna), which was developed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities, is designed to enable scientists to learn more about the physical nature of RNA – a molecular cousin of DNA, and an important agent in every cell.

The EteRNA website,, explains the project. “The folding and shape-shifting of RNA allows RNA and other molecules to control the cell’s processes,” it says. In nature, RNA can be used to build proteins, to turn off genes, to drive chemical reactions, and to direct the formation of viruses. “EteRNA is a radical experiment in citizen involvement in cutting-edge laboratory science,” the website continues. “You are helping scientists understand the mysteries surrounding RNA folding and eventually paving the way towards new, complex and medically useful biomolecules out of RNA.”

I registered on the website and immediately was invited to play the game, getting drawn into a computer program that gives a sequence for an RNA molecule and challenges players to determine its shape. It is an addictive exercise, which involves following seemingly simple rules of chemistry to build RNA molecules of different shapes. But the simple rules quickly become more complex, adding to the challenge.

I was player number 42,176 to join the community, which includes mostly undergraduates, graduate students, and scientists, who spend countless hours and creative energy solving RNA structures. I soon worked my way up to a rank of about 15,000, but I understand that it gets much harder the higher you rise in the rankings.

“I go into a puzzle,” Randman said. “There they have an unfolded molecule and you have to figure out how to make it fold properly.” RNA has four building blocks – the bases adenine, uracil, cytosine and guanine (abbreviated A, U, C and G), which are linked together in chains of varied lengths, spelling out sequences of the genetic code. The puzzle requires following the rules that govern how RNA chains fold in living cells, namely that C and G can stick together and make the strongest pair, A and U can pair up, and U and G can make the weakest pair. Once you work out a solution, proposing a shape for the RNA, Randman said, “you submit it with a whole bunch of other people. If your sequence is chosen, they try to synthesize it in the lab.” Although Randman has not yet had a sequence make it to the last step, he has come close to being chosen. “You get points for completing it, and your ranking goes up. I’ve gotten to the point where they’ve voted on my molecule to be possibly synthesized.”

“Josh is doing what higher level university researchers are doing,” Amy Levine, Schechter’s communications coordinator, said. “One day, a puzzle he is working on could be used in the lab.”

Stephen Taylor, a Schechter science teacher, reported that after he learned how to do the RNA puzzles Joshua brought his newfound skills back to the school, where he eagerly taught younger students how to do it.

“Students can take advantage of it and work virtually, and really make a difference,” Daniel Jaye, Schecter’s director of academic affairs, said. “We try to teach our students to be leaders of the next generation. That Josh would come back and teach younger students is remarkable.”

Taylor said that the school offers advanced science classes where students can take on research projects. E2K, developed by the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, is an example of a Schechter program that provides opportunities for enrichment in science and math. “That’s where the EteRNA project took place,” Taylor said. He also noted that the school has “lots of advanced equipment, including a fluorescent microscope, a dissecting microscope, and a PCR machine.” Those tools, which typically would be found only in universities, are used for Schechter middle school science fair projects. Taylor reported that an anonymous donor, who has a vision of high level science experiences in middle school, donated the fluorescent microscope. “That’s amazing for a middle school,” he said. “At the end of that rainbow is a child who has a middle school experience that he would never have gotten in any other middle school, anywhere.”

“I think microscopy gets students to ask questions,” said Jaye, who came to Schechter two years ago, after serving as principal of Bergen Academies in Hackensack. “Our vision is to create students who are very comfortable with this instrumentation.” Jaye believes in encouraging activities that involve students in science competitions. “I saw what competition does to elevate everybody’s game,” he said. The school arranges for outside judges, including doctors, science professors, and other professionals to be involved in the school science fairs.

Meanwhile, Joshua Randman, who is planning to attend the Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter high school in West Orange, still spends time building virtual RNA molecules, but also enjoys other hobbies, including football, computers, video games, and learning about dinosaurs and space exploration. He has a particular interest in the planet Mars, and hopes to visit it one day. It is no surprise that his EteRNA username is Marsman. “I like that planet,” he said.

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