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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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Trainees reach out to area students for NC DNA Day

By Jeffrey Stumpf

John House, Ph.D.

House performs research in the Genetics, Environment, and Respiratory Disease Group at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D.

Swerdlow studies mutagenesis in E. coli in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

April Binder, Ph.D.

Binder is a postdoctoral trainee in the Laboratory of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology and a veteran DNA Day ambassador. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

This April, NIEHS trainees once again traded in their pipettes for hall passes to participate in North Carolina DNA Day. Commemorating the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003 and the anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double helix by Watson and Crick in 1953, DNA Day sends scientists to North Carolina high schools to educate students about DNA-related topics, as well as exciting career opportunities in science and biotechnology.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill hosts the statewide program that puts exciting topics, such as forensics and genetic diseases, into the classroom. Except for UNC itself, NIEHS sent more scientists out to area high schools than any other participating institution.

Scientific substance and role models for students

In addition to teaching students about modern molecular biology, DNA Day encourages scientists to talk about what excites them in biology. John House, Ph.D., an NIEHS trainee, relayed his enthusiasm for science. “I wanted high school students to have a chance to meet a scientist and hear about science and our passion for research,” he said.

Fellow NIEHS Trainee, April Binder, Ph.D., agreed, “NC DNA Day is a great way to bring the fun and excitement of science into the community, and share what we do every day with students from diverse backgrounds.”

Postdoctoral researcher Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., challenged the students’ misconception of what a scientist looks like by asking them rhetorically, “Do I look like an old man in a white coat?” Binder also eased the minds of the fashion-concerned students. “Most students were shocked to hear that I don’t wear a white lab coat all of the time.” Binder recalled.

Science leaves some students with a bitter taste in their mouths

Some trainees used the example of cystic fibrosis to teach students how different traits are expressed and what can cause a genetic disease. The class was accompanied by a hands-on activity using patient samples and DNA sequences to determine which patient has cystic fibrosis. The link from DNA to genetic disease, according to House, stimulated the students’ interests. “The students were most interested in how a mutation caused cystic fibrosis and how we might one day cure the disease with gene therapy,” he said.

Other trainees allowed students to sample phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) chemical paper to determine if they could taste the bitter chemical. Tasting PTC depends on the composition of the PTC gene, which encodes a bitter taste receptor protein. NIEHS trainee Sarah Swerdlow noticed that the variety of the students’ responses made the activity fun.

“They enjoyed watching their classmates’ faces,” Swerdlow observed. “Some of them needed a sucker to get the taste out of their mouths.”

Fortunately, a sucker was part of the next activity. Using the dye of the sucker, students were able to count papillae on their tongue and determine whether those with sensitive tastes have more papillae. While the results of their experiment may have varied from what was expected, Swerdlow introduced the unexpected data as a real science lesson. “I think it is a good lesson that results are not always perfect,” Swerdlow noted. “Unexpected results are a part of biology.”

The students also performed some hands-on activities that included extracting DNA from saliva, and filled out a genetic wheel — an exercise that diagrammed their genetic diversity. These activities taught about the basic functions of DNA and the molecular tools that are used to study it. But, in the end, Binder noted that the students were most interested in science that is most accessible to them.

“The students asked great thought-provoking questions, especially about DNA and forensics, because they see and hear so much about it on TV these days,” said Binder.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group, who also participated in DNA Day as a DNA ambassador.)

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