Discover the Difference: Human Genome Project Comes to St. Theresa School

August 30, 2021

Student doing science experiment

Inspired. Driven. Enthusiastic. These are all words members of the St. Theresa Catholic School community use to describe middle school science teacher Ronda McCarthy. So it is no surprise that she once again sought out grant funding to bring innovative STEM programming to her classroom. McCarthy was not alone in her efforts as several of her colleagues also submitted grant applications. As a result, the school received eight STEM Scale-Up Grants to implement various STEM-based learning projects for the 2021-2022 school year. McCarthy applied for four grants in total. One grant, in particular, would bring DNA science to her classroom through the SoapyCilantro Project. 

"Genetics is a subject that is so important to our world," said McCarthy. "Providing my students an opportunity to learn about the human genome using STEM and incorporating real-world connections is invaluable. I couldn't wait to apply for this grant!"

According to Drake University, "The SoapyCilantro Project aims to address the lack of trained personnel in the area of genomics and precision medicine, the future of human health care," (Drake University, 2021). The SoapyCilantro Project was not new to McCarthy. She had previously worked with Dr. Pramod Mahajan and Drake University to evaluate the SoapyCilantro STEM kits and their use in the classroom.

By applying genetic sequencing and genomic concepts from the Humane Genome Project, SoapyCilantro can identify how variations in human genes can impact their traits. Moreover, the program highlights how understanding these genetic variations applies to the practice of precision medicine. The SoapyCilantro Scale-Up Grant provided a three-credit continuing education course for Iowa STEM educators, a SoapyCilantro education kit, and a lesson plan for these educators to use in their 6-12 grade classrooms. McCarthy and colleague Ashley Mitchell completed the genetics course at Drake University this summer in preparation for the 2021-2022 school year.

"We study DNA and the human genome because this area of science is exploding with discoveries that affect all humanity," exclaimed McCarthy. "From using mRNA technology to develop vaccines to discovering a cure for some cancers, this is important work that may hold the keys to unlocking new cures and treatments for many health conditions. The next generation of scientists will carry this research further than we can imagine in the future."

McCarthy plans to introduce genetics concepts to her seventh-grade students and offer a more intense hands-on discovery of human genetics using the SoapyCilantro STEM kits with her eighth-graders. Using the SoapyCilantro kits, students will conduct a taste test using fresh cilantro leaves and document their taste - spicy, mild, mildly spicy, or soapy. Students will also collect samples of their cheek cells to identify the gene responsible for cilantro taste and detect their genotype. 

"Science is everywhere and affects all of our lives. I love to help my students become passionate about science and make real-world connections to what they have learned," shared McCarthy. "I especially love to work with underrepresented populations of students because we need everyone interested in this learning to feel like they fit in and belong in this field." 

Other Diocese of Des Moines Catholic schools awarded STEM Scale-Up Grants from the Governor's STEM Council for the 2021-2022 school year include:

  • St. Malachy Catholic School, Creston
  • St. Joseph Catholic School, Des Moines
  • Christ the King Catholic School, Des Moines
  • Holy Trinity Catholic School, Des Moines
  • St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, West Des Moines
  • St. Patrick Catholic School, Perry
  • St. Pius X Catholic School, Urbandale

Since 2012, the Governor's STEM Council has partnered with successful STEM education programs to reach 100,000 young Iowa learners each year and engage them in STEM learning across the state. Through grant support, thousands of educators across Iowa have delivered exciting units in robotics, coding, engineering design, agriculture, animal science and more. 

The Diocese of Des Moines Catholic schools includes 16 schools in 23 counties in central and southwest Iowa. Catholic schools in the Des Moines Diocese build Christ-centered, collaborative, inclusive partnerships with parents, students, and parishes to provide innovative academic excellence and inspirational faith formation. To learn more about the Diocese of Des Moines Catholic schools, visit or email


National Human Genome Research Institute. (2021). The Human Genome Project. Retrieved August 26, 2021 from

Drake University College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences. (2021). SoapyCilantro. Retrieved August 26 from