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Biology project resonates with MBCI students

Students studied diseases that have afflicted close family members

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Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute biology teacher Laura O'Brien and students Cassidy Kasdorf, Christina Kim, and Tomaz Marques are shown by a wall of projects related to diseases running in the students' respective families.

PHOTO BY DAN FALLOON Enlarge Image

Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute biology teacher Laura O'Brien and students Cassidy Kasdorf, Christina Kim, and Tomaz Marques are shown by a wall of projects related to diseases running in the students' respective families. Photo Store

Laura O’Brien’s Grade 11 biology classes are making a point of going beyond the causes and symptoms of diseases as part of a research unit.

Inspired by O’Brien’s father’s battle with kidney cancer, she assigned her Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute students to research a disease that affected a family member. Students delved into the emotional aspects of each disease as they presented, having researched those as prevalent as breast cancer to extremely rare ones like Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.

"For Grade 11, they study all of the systems of the human body, and there’s a big focus on diseases," O’Brien said. "I kept thinking about how diseases affect everybody in such a significant way, but we’re never able to display that kind of emotion all at once.

"Disease impacted me greatly, and I realized that disease doesn’t just have a physiological effect, it has an emotional impact. It’s important as a community that we have a chance to talk about that."

Each student created a shadow — posed to display an emotion related to the disease — on which they posted information about each disease. Each shadow was then taped up in one of MBCI’s main hallways. Near a poster introducing the projects, O’Brien left Post-it notes to encourage other students to write down the name of a relative who is affected by a disease and placing the note above the relevant project.

"I didn’t really expect so many students to pour so much effort into the project, but because it’s personally connected to them, they’ve just invested incredible amounts of energy into their work," O’Brien said.

Cassidy Kasdorf looked forward to doing the project since seeing last year’s entries. Her brother, Spencer, suffered from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome as a child, and she wanted to share his story. The condition occurs when the skin and mucous membranes react to a medication or infection, causing rashes on par with third-degree burns.

"It’s burning everything inside out of the body, because it thinks your body has a disease and is trying to kill it," Kasdorf said, adding those suffering from the disease can be blinded if the condition works its way up to the eyes. Spencer’s stopped just before his eyes, and he has since recovered.

She said her family downplayed her brother’s severity at the time, as she was just five years old, but she learned more about the condition through the project.

"They just told us it was a rash. It looked like chickenpox to us," she recalled. "They just said it was really extreme.

"(The project) made things a lot more clear about what happened to him."

Christina Kim investigated her father’s condition of cirrhosis, which hardens the liver’s bile ducts and caused him to have a stroke and be temporarily paralyzed. Kim said her father, who still lives in South Korea, is in the final stages of liver hardening after suffering complications for approximately the past decade.

"I didn’t even understand what was going on, but doing this project, I had the opportunity to find out," Kim said.

Tomaz Marques had the opportunity to learn more about autoimmune hepatitis — which is a condition that attacks the liver — affecting his mother. Marques added he had a "general idea" of what the condition was before starting the project, but the information certainly began to resonate with him.

"(I didn’t realize) how rare it was," he said. "My mother said she had met only one person in her entire life that had the disease.

"It took the doctors three years to diagnose her because it was so rare."

The project also connected to Stuart Koslowsky’s applied math class, as students pored over statistics related to their particular disease of study.

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