A journey from biology to the DNA Center


Croí Spillane’s love affair with science began in the third grade while dissecting a frog. Her partner was so repulsed she was unable to participate. So Croí dissected her frog too.

“We were studying frogs and it was cool to see what we learned right in front of me,” said Croí, now 17. “I realized there were eggs under some of the organs. It was really cool to see.”

When it came time for the Huntington resident, to choose a high school to attend Croí didn’t hesitate, selecting St. Dominic. Her reason, she said, was because the Oyster Bay Catholic school has an impressive science, technology, engineering and math program, and opportunities outside school. One perk offered is to study at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory DNA Learning Center, which Croí did this year from September until January. Then in March she was the only junior chosen for an internship program at the center, which will extend during the summer months.

“Croí is a very dedicated hardworking student and a perfectionist,” her mother, Bridget Spillane said. “She had an opportunity to work at the local day camp this summer but said the DNA Learning Center is what she wanted to do. Croí wants to be a part of helping kids understand DNA.”

The center is affiliated with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which is devoted entirely to genetics education.

St. Dominic’s STEM Science Path offers classes that begin in the ninth grade to prepare students for the Molecular & Genomic Research class, which they will take as juniors that includes study at the DNA Learning Center.

Freshmen are introduced to STEM, learning about computing systems, data, analysis and algorithms as they explore science and engineering. As sophomores students learn novice research methods, where the emphasis is placed on basic statistics used in research. Then when they are juniors, they take an advanced biology course — Molecular & Genomic Research — that focuses on molecular biology research which is taught in collaboration with the DNA Learning Center.

“My favorite class is biology because I’m interested in learning how everything functions together,” Croí explained, “and I like genetics because I think it’s cool to see how we are made.”

Juniors go to the center from September through January to learn about molecular biology, bar coding and bioinformatics techniques for two periods a day.

Croí said she learned a great deal. “You have to isolate DNA and amplify specific regions,” she explained. “If you have a certain sequence you can see what organism you have.”

David Erlanger, who teaches the research classes, said students are challenged because they have to think outside the box and then take what they’ve learned and apply it to a real world problem.

He said he’s been impressed with Croí since they first met. “She’s an outstanding student. She’s a well-rounded student and is in all honors and AP classes,” he said. “She challenges herself very well.”

The junior research class include a requirement that students develop a research proposal. “If it’s approved they select specimens and practice processing them at the DNA lab,” Erlanger said. “Then they do it themselves and process them at school. I guide them through the process and Cold Spring Harbor provides the materials.”

All of the work she’s done at St. Dominic has prepared Croí for her internship. She’ll perform laboratory prep work for the center’s educational programs, including classroom upkeep and equipment setup. She’ll also participate in independent or team projects, mentored by the center’s staff, which focus on translating current research into new experiments for the educational programs offered at the center.

“Im in the background now instead of doing the lab,” Croí  said. “I set them up and put materials together for the lab. During summer there will be camps and I will work with them helping them to learn.”

Croí said she’s right at home at the DNA Learning Center. “I want to work in the biological field and definitely in a lab,” she said. “I’m hoping this will help me pinpoint what I want to do when I grow up.”