Molecular Science: A Hidden Gem

Molecular Science, taught by Mr. Papagayo, is a little-known course for sophomores that is designed to further an interest in biology and prepare students for future research and lab work.

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When Stuyvesant students think about science electives for sophomores, what usually comes to mind are Genetics Research with Dr. Maria Nedwideck-Moore and Urban Ecology with Marissa Maggio. The one-section Molecular Science with Gilbert Papagayo is a yearlong elective that is often overlooked.

Papagayo enjoys teaching Molecular Science because it is a class that helps prepare students for future research at labs as opposed to a textbook-based class. The first semester focuses on nucleic acids and the second semester focuses on proteins and carbohydrates. By reading numerous scientific articles concerning research done on these molecules and writing formal lab reports, the class develops scientific literacy, which when combined with exposure to various laboratory techniques, puts the students on course for future success with research in college or in hospital labs. Papagayo embraces the little-known nature of the class, asserting, “If there were two sections, it would dilute both the quality of students and the quality of my teaching.”

“Due to the fact that there aren't that many students in the class, the atmosphere is much more relaxed than many of my regular classes, which seem to be buzzing with energy. If this class had been fuller, then I don't think I'd be able to have such a deep understanding of the course as I do now,” sophomore Avni Garg said. This year, the class only has 14 students, whereas last year, it was capped at 28 students. Papagayo isn’t so concerned with the class’s unknown status, emphasizing that this year’s enrollment is “an apparition,” because other biology teachers know about it and recommend it to their best students. He is more concerned with the strict application deadline, citing a case where he sent the applications of two of his students to Elizabeth Fong, the Assistant Principal of the Biology department who reviews the applications, two days late, resulting in them not getting the class. Papagayo thinks that the application deadline should be fluid.

“I think that because this class requires an application process, it discourages people to consider it as an option. In addition, the application is just really intimidating because one of the requirements is having at least a 95 in your biology class,” sophomore Andrea Khoury explained. “As someone who most certainly did not have over a 95 in Modern Biology and is currently in the class, I find it unnecessary to scare away potential students like that.” Papagayo did not comment regarding any planned changes to this requirement.

The class faced a rough patch this fall semester when it was relocated from its normal classroom, 731, to 727, which didn’t have the necessary lab equipment. The class had to move back and forth to complete labs, and it was a hassle for Papagayo, who often had to stay after school until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. to prepare for them. According to him, this wasn’t so much an issue of another class being prioritized over Molecular Science but rather a miscommunication between him and the administration. This semester, the class was moved from its traditional third period to seventh in order for the class to be back in 731. However, this was accompanied by the loss of a few students whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the switch. Some students who continued with the elective had their entire schedule shifted and expressed dissatisfaction with the change.

Papagayo was originally asked to take over this course from biology teacher Anne Manwell, a veteran in the department, after she retired six years ago. He was “thrown into it,” he said. Papagayo also noted that he was initially was not very well prepared to fill Manwell’s role. But nevertheless, he met her requests, received the curriculum (which includes several scientific papers analyzed in class and the current textbook), and got to work orienting himself to teach the elective. Generally, yearlong electives are hard to plan, while semesterly electives are easier to refine over the years. Papagayo hasn’t made many changes to the original curriculum besides moving units around and adding a unit focused on proteins. The first semester still focuses on the history and nature of nucleic acids. Students learn about how scientists confirmed that DNA holds genetic information and how DNA replication is a semiconservative process. The second semester aims to inform students about proteins and carbohydrates and familiarize them with concepts like chirality (molecular symmetry) and interpreting line structure (a system used to graphically represent organic molecules). Students also participate in the Protein Databank High School Video Competition. This year’s topic is “Molecular Mechanisms of Opioid Action,” and students are tasked with making a video that communicates a specific molecular or public health component concerning the opioid crisis. In previous years, Papagayo’s students have won the Viewer’s Choice Award and even placed second for the Judge’s Award.

One significant change Papagayo made to the curriculum, however, involved moving the sugar unit to the end of the year; sugars are typically the most foreign and hardest compound to study because they are difficult to characterize and image. The addition of the protein unit was his idea because proteins were his research interest when he was a graduate student, and he wants to share his passion with his students, hoping it may leave them with a bigger message than just a 100 on the next quiz. Additionally, Papagayo has expressed a strong dislike for the current textbook, “DNA Science: A First Course” (2nd edition) by David Micklos, because it is outdated, having been published in 1990, and its vague explanations are hard to learn from.

Despite his issues with the current textbook, Papagayo thinks that the class is moving at a good pace, keeping in mind that it is an elective and shouldn’t be too challenging. This begs juxtaposition with Dr. Ned’s Genetic Research class, which is notorious for its challenging assignments and material. In response to this, Mr. Papagayo attested, “It is just my teaching style. I just don’t want students to spend five hours on my homework every night. I think that that’s not a good use of their time.”

Rather, Papagayo focuses on trying to do more labs with the class, teaching his students how to perform fundamental procedures like Polymerase Chain Reaction, Bacterial Transformation, and DNA Miniprep. After all, he’s trying to prepare his students for future lab work. Khoury said, “What's unique is how often we complete labs; I think this class is more centered on labs than any other science class.” The only concern with this is that many of the labs Papagayo conducts with his students significantly overlap with those performed by Advanced Placement Biology students, who, given their interest in biology, are the most probable candidates for next year’s class. Papagayo would love to do labs outside the scope of Advanced Placement Biology to introduce these students to even more new material, but is restrained by the often triple-digit price tags of lab apparatuses. Students already have to pay $30 in lab fees every semester. Khoury, when asked if she’d like to change anything about the course, answered, “I would probably change the number of class trips [and] interactive activities we have. Also, we should have more equipment and materials for more advanced labs we could do. I feel like since this is a science elective, it should be a bit more fun.”

On the same token, sophomore Julia Nelson said, “I appreciate that this class isn't too stressful as it is an elective, but I wish we were given more guidance with researching and that it was more geared toward current techniques. I would like this class to have more focus on modern techniques, such as automation or producing computerized models.”

Papagayo is incredibly passionate about biology, finding many current issues and innovations interesting and sharing it with the class daily. He tries to address student input and assign projects that are topical. For instance, his most recent assignment, though not fully fleshed out yet, involves research on a protein involved in the current coronavirus pandemic.

One thing, however, that still nags at the back of his mind is the fact that he used to have more guest speakers for the class when he first started teaching the class. Unfortunately, these speakers only want to come once or once every few years. It’s too inconsistent and difficult to plan, so Papagayo decided to stop asking them to come, though he has seemingly changed his mind. Nonetheless, hearing professionals talk about their own professions is inspiring, especially to a class of biology-minded individuals who all wish to be standing in the speaker’s position in the future. It conjures an intellectually motivated atmosphere and really epitomizes the goal of Molecular Science and Stuyvesant’s STEM program as a whole: to incite a spark in the doctors, researchers, engineers, and programmers of the future and have them leave Stuyvesant with an even greater hunger for success and innovation in their field.