Ray Cinti is the recipient of the national 2019 Corteva Excellence in Agricultural Science Education Award. Presented at the National Science Teachers Association awards banquet this April in St. Louis, the annual award recognizes a science teacher who incorporates innovative agricultural science activities into their existing science curriculum.
“The award meant so much to me and for my students,” said Cinti. “We have a saying that we always want to advance discovery to improve lives and I feel our project and award acknowledges that goal.”
A resident of South Burlington, Cinti teaches biology at Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield. With the award, he received a $2,500 grant and $1,000 for travel expenses to attend the national conference. As Corteva is the agricultural division of DowDuPont, Cinti will also receive mentoring with a DuPont Pioneer scientist, classroom resources and access to a DuPont Pioneer product plant or research facility.
“Ray demonstrates the values most educators strive to acquire at some point in their career, the ability to ignite a fire in students to be lifelong learners, problem solvers and critical thinkers,” said Olivia Transue, chair of Green Mountain Valley School science department. “He exposes them to a variety of sophisticated procedures in order to open their eyes to how amazing life actually is, through the act of experimentally studying life, itself. The emotion and passion demonstrated in his lab-room is clearly apparent to everyone that interacts with him. He goes above and beyond in all that he does.”
The grant funding helps support Cinti’s students’ ongoing investigations in the detection of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) at Vermont farms. The research is part of a course he conceived, designed and taught at Green Mountain Valley School.
The inspiration for the course began at last year’s National Science Teachers Association National Conference, where Cinti received the 2018 Biotechnology Explorer Award. While there, he participated in workshops about GMOs, learning how to detect a variety of sequences in DNA. It was then, Cinti decided to design the class about GMO detection, incorporating visits to farms in the Mad River Valley and the Belter Farm in South Burlington.
“I wanted my students to discover for themselves, as real investigators do, whether or not crops had been genetically modified through the identification of these particular DNA sequences,” said Cinti. “I wanted them to experience the sheer abundance and prevalence of GMOs by first seeing if they could detect DNA in GMOs in various grocery store foods. I thought that if we started with food it would spark the authentic engagement and excite real curiosity.”
After extracting DNA from a variety of foods, Cinti said his students “performed a series of (polymerase chain reaction) amplifications and a number of agarose and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis to verify results.”
In addition, the class visited four Vermont farms, met with farmers and learned firsthand about the use of pesticides and herbicides. Plant seeds and leaves were sampled, after which the material was brought to their lab to extract DNA to detect foreign sequences.
“We used a lateral flow immunochromatographic assays,” explained Cinti. “We also incorporated a variety of additional techniques used in agricultural biotechnology to detect foreign proteins such as ELISA, and protein fingerprinting. After detecting protein, the plan was to investigate the presence of foreign DNA.”
Cinti, who is a graduate of University of California Davis, invited Dr. Pamela Ronald, a professor at his alma mater, to be a guest speaker via FaceTime.
“It was an incredible privilege to have one of the lead scientists in the world speak and take questions from our students,” said Cinti.
Also working with the University of Vermont, Cinti invited Department of Plant and Soil Science assistant professor Eric Bishop von Wettberg to share his research on chickpeas. The professor explained how he and his team searched for genes in the Middle East that will help legumes better adapt to the predicted future of climate change.
“They were able to see how an agricultural scientist approaches real life questions and tries to solve real world problems,” remarked Cinti. “Eric commended their experimental designs and their lab skills. That praise, coming from a scientist in the field, helped validate their investigations and study.”
As a result of that visit, Cinti said he is collaborating with UVM in an effort to offer a plant genetics research class at Green Mountain Valley School.
“This would open the door to some amazing possibilities; future students could partner to do novel research in plant and agricultural science,” he said.
Cinti’s Corteva $2,500 grant will go towards development of this new course, allowing the purchase of required reagents and specialized equipment essential to conduct numerous investigations.
“The plan for the future would be to possibly investigate soil biodiversity through the use of DNA barcoding or amplify genes in plants and sequence them in order to better study crops’ capacity for adaptation and their resilience in the face of climate change,” explained Cinti, adding, “This would be a major opportunity to experience the joy of discovery for the students and the greater Vermont community.”