Building Deep Knowledge and Cutting-Edge Lab Skills for College-Bound Students

The 4th generation to grow up on the family ranch just South of Ada, PTC Biotechnology instructor Sharon Phillips is a native to Pontotoc County. Agriculture has always been a big part of her life and much of what she does in the lab/classroom can be related to her background and love for the land and animals she grew up tending.

Phillips graduated college with the goal of coaching and teaching science. She set off nearly 36 years ago to do just that. She found herself in Cashion and then Kellyville for nearly a decade. After returning to Pontotoc County and teaching at Vanoss in the mid-nineties, she says, “I really fell in love with science when I was at Vanoss. My superintendent sent me to an NSTA conference in Atlanta Georgia. When I got back, I reached out to another local science teacher, Susie Edens, and she became a mentor to me.” Edens established the program at PTC where Phillips would find herself a few years later. 

Phillips worked hard to expand the high school science program at Vanoss. “After seeing the science opportunities at the conference in Atlanta, and attending a biotech program presented by OCCC shortly thereafter, I was hooked. I’ve always loved the hands-on aspects of teaching science, and biotech engages students so well, and it’s just a lot of fun.” She remembers talking with her Superintendent [Cheryl Melton] shortly after the conference. “I told her, there’s so much more to Science that we’re not doing. I remember she told me there’s something called electrophoresis she wanted me to look into and that’s when I reached out to Susie for the first time.” The direction from Ms. Melton made a difference on both the personal and professional level.  

Sharon started working in the Biotechnology program at PTC in 2018. “I always liked science. I just enjoy it and I love the hands-on aspects of the field. Biotech is just the right fit with so much hands-on work involved.” She explains how PTC is a dream come true, “We’ve got equipment to do just about any lab at high and deep levels. We worked with EPSCOR grants to fund the program and the grant has been renewed again this year. That grant pays for most of our equipment, but PTC has been 100% behind us and picks up the bill for anything else we need to make this an amazing program.”

Mrs. Phillips finds immense satisfaction in the ‘aha’ moments her students experience every day. One of the questions posed to her students early on in the class is how to retrieve DNA from a strawberry. “Starting out, students generally don’t know and so we go through the process of breaking down the membranes and letting the DNA ‘float out’ - the students invariably say, ‘oh yeah, that makes sense!’”

The program dives much deeper as students become more and more familiar with the tools, processes, and concepts of a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab. “pGLO is one of my favorite experiments to teach. We transform bacteria with a gene that codes for a fluorescent protein (originates from a jellyfish).  As the bacteria multiplies the new bacteria will express their “glowing” gene. The students love it! The experiment teaches how to inform genes in research and applications like GMOs, drought-resistant crops, and the effects on production, growth, and yield for agriculture all over the world. We basically genetically engineer bacteria.”

It’s not the typical program most people think about when they think about CareerTech opportunities. When asked about this, Phillips says, “A lot of programs provide opportunities to get certifications and while some do prepare for higher ed, many of the other programs can lead to well-paying careers right after graduation. Our Biotech program is different. It is open to all high school students and we encourage anyone interested in science to check us out. Our primary focus with this program is to build excellent foundations and prepare our students for science-related futures in college.”

When asked how the program prepares students for college, Mrs. Phillips says, “One good example is that if they’ve been through our program, they walk into the college experience totally prepared for the college science lab. Our equipment and laboratory at PTC can hold its own when compared against many college facilities. Our students walk into the college lab on day one and they know the equipment, it’s function, how it works, and can operate it. It’s a big advantage and can simply alleviate the fear of walking into a college lab.” Additionally, she explains, “The knowledge base we build is an AP level and it goes deep. When our students take their first science courses in college, they find it much easier to be successful and continue building their foundational knowledge.”

Reflecting on the last several months of the 2020 pandemic, Phillips says, “For this year I’m just so excited we have students in the classroom.  I’m just ecstatic about it because doing hands-on labs outside the classroom is near impossible. I know Biology teachers across the nation becoming very creative trying to find ways for students to be hands-on and it is a struggle.  We have an awesome group of students this year and I’m really excited about where the program is headed in the years to come!”

When not in the classroom/lab, Sharon loves spending time on the ranch. She has one son Ricky Joe, who is at OSU and plans to graduate this Spring, and a step-son Justin, who lives in McAlester with his wife Jessie. “Sometimes it’s hard to make the choice between teaching and ranching. I basically have my second job as soon as I leave the school. I go home to my cattle and take care of the ranch.” Running a 70-head cow/calf operation, she focuses on breeding, raising, and selling. “One of my favorite times in life is calving season, when those babies start arriving it always makes my heart happy!”  

Visit the Environmental Biotechnology Program Page