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May 2011

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NIEHS trainees serve as DNA ambassadors for high schools

By Jeffrey Stumpf
May 2011

Shay Covo, Ph.D., helps students extran DNA from their own saliva

Covo, right, helps students at Challenger Early College High School in Hickory to extract DNA from their own saliva. (Photo Courtesy of Molly Barlow)

Amy Abdulovic-Cui, Ph.D., teaches in front of the classroom

LMG postdoctoral trainee Amy Abdulovic-Cui, Ph.D., left, demonstrates the concepts of restriction enzyme digestion to students at a North Carolina high school. (Photo courtesy of Amy Abdulovic-Cui)

Amy Abdulovic-Cui, Ph.D.

Abdulovic-Cui is a member of the LMG DNA Fidelity Replication Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Shay Covo, Ph.D.

Covo is a visiting fellow in the LMG Chromosome Stability Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A mundane spring Friday of high school biology classes turned into a salivating discussion of forensics, thanks to trainees from NIEHS. Commemorating North Carolina DNA Day 2011( Exit NIEHS, the volunteers presented molecular biology lectures and hands-on activities to students at high schools around the state.

NC DNA Day and parallel events nationwide honor the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the publication by Watson and Crick of the DNA double helical structure in 1953. The goal is to teach current, exciting genetic lessons to over 200 high school classrooms. NIEHS trainees joined students from area universities to travel as far as Hickory to promote the study of genetics to North Carolina youths.

Jana Stone, Ph.D., a postdoctoral trainee in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG) and veteran DNA ambassador, served as the liaison between the DNA Day organizers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and NIEHS trainees.

For trainees, DNA day was an opportunity to practice teaching and presenting science in a unique way. "I participated in DNA day because I love doing science and I am always looking for opportunities to share it," said Sonika Patial, Ph.D., a postdoctoral trainee in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction (LST).

DNA ambassadors, such as Valerie Davis, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis (LMC), became the face of the modern-day, real-life scientist that can relate to today's students. "I wanted to get students excited about science and show them that it's not only older men who do research," said Davis. "Interacting with scientists allows students an opportunity to discover what a science career could be like."

Students extract DNA from spit

In addition to teaching the structure and function of DNA, trainees taught the class how to extract their own DNA from their saliva. The extraction protocol took only a few minutes and used soap, salt, and rubbing alcohol.

Because high school students rarely are asked to spit on anything, let alone an experiment, the lesson was refreshing, and the results were rewarding. "I heard comments like, 'So, this is my DNA? That is so cool!" commented Julie Lowe, Ph.D., a postdoctoral trainee from LMG. Another postdoctoral trainee from LMG, Shay Covo, Ph.D., agreed, "While some were reluctant to deal with their own body fluids, all of them were really amazed to actually see DNA."

High school class solves mascot heist

In addition to lecturing about DNA, NIEHS trainees used the kind of forensics seen in modern television dramas to discuss common molecular biology techniques. The classes learned how DNA is collected and analyzed to determine whether a suspect was involved in a crime.

The students were presented with "an urgent announcement from the principal" that their rival high school had stolen the mascot and sent a ransom letter to them. In this scenario, the envelope was sealed, meaning that DNA could be extracted and tested from the saliva. The class learned that polymerase chain reaction (PCR), restriction endonuclease digests, and size determination of the resulting fragments by separation on agarose gels could identify who sealed the envelope. (It turns out that the DNA came from Vince, the nefarious drumstick-wielding band member.)

In addition to the molecular techniques, the class tackled ethical issues involving use of DNA samples to identify criminals. Students debated the controversy of requiring DNA samples for forensics testing, weighing the right to privacy versus improvements in apprehending criminals.

Though many students will probably not chose science as a career, Covo acknowledges that these discussions will be important for issues that will arise in the coming years. "Better communication between scientists and the next generation may improve the knowledge of the non-scientific community regarding moral decisions that are based on scientific facts," said Covo.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

Valerie Davis, Ph.D.

Davis is part of the LMC Chromatin and Gene Expression Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Julie Lowe, Ph.D.

Lowe is also a part of Chromosome Stability Group at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sonika Patial, Ph.D.

Patial works in the LST Polypeptide Hormone Action Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jana Stone, Ph.D.

Stone is a member of the LMG DNA Fidelity Replication Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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