By Jamie Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
On April 25, Katie Veleta and Jennifer Ocasio were up early to beat the bell. They were due at Northern Durham High School by 7:30 a.m. for Mr. Buczynski’s Honors Biology class. Not too long ago, they were students in a classroom just like this one, Veleta in Jacksonville, Florida, and Ocasio in Puerto Rico. Now, graduate students working in the Gershon Lab at the UNC School of Medicine, they were back in high school as North Carolina (NC) DNA Day ambassadors, discussing their work with “Mr. B’s” students, explaining why they love science and wowing the class with a few quick DNA extraction activities.
There were lessons like this going on in more than 300 classrooms all across North Carolina – and in five other states – illustrating just how substantially the program has grown since it began 10 years ago. The goal from the start, said Joshua Hall, PhD, director of NC DNA Day and of science outreach at the UNC School of Medicine, has been to more closely connect research institutions with public schools. While Veleta and Ocasio were assigned Northern Durham High School, the majority of the DNA Day Ambassadors reported to classrooms outside of the Triangle.
“One piece of feedback that we’ve gotten from teachers in the rural areas of the state is that they don’t often get opportunities like this and so we try to make sure we’re serving them as best we can,” Hall said.
Money raised from the annual NC DNA Day 5K event provides gas cards and covers hotel accommodations for ambassadors traveling to the mountains or the coast – an option Hall said is quite popular, due to the wide range of long weekend-worthy destinations across North Carolina.
Also popular, he said, are “repeat customers,” both ambassadors and teachers who would like to participate in DNA Day several years in a row.
This year was the third time Ocasio served as an ambassador, and it was Veleta’s second go round. This was also Buczynski’s second consecutive year participating.
“Every year it’s a different experience and a different challenge, which is exciting,” Veleta said. “This year is the second time that Jennifer and I have taught together, which has been really great. We work very closely in the lab and I think that makes us good at reading each other in the classroom.”
They taught the forensics module, which includes students extracting their own DNA from saliva and later using knowledge of restriction enzymes and DNA fingerprinting to solve the case of a stolen mascot.
Ambassadors contact the teachers they are paired with in the weeks before NC DNA Day to discuss the available modules and decide which may complement other material being discussed in class.
“DNA and DNA fingerprinting is part of our standard curriculum, but we just don’t have a lot of time to go into depth on the subject,” Buczynski said. “Plus, I think hearing from someone other than their teacher who they see every single day can make a subject a little more real.”
There was a new module available this year, focusing on DNA repair and the Nobel Prize-winning work of Drs. Aziz Sancar of UNC and Paul Modrich of Duke. Students learned about the built-in mechanisms our bodies use to prevent and repair damage to DNA and also analyzed some of the data that went into Sancar’s Nobel-winning work.
“We’re always trying to keep the modules fresh and relevant,” Hall said. “This was a really great opportunity to further celebrate all of the incredible scientific work going on in our state in a way that is approachable to the students.”
Also new this year is an expansion of the NC DNA Day Connect Program after a successful pilot in 2015. Connect ambassadors are paired with teachers throughout the school year, serving as a “scientist on call” for the classes. Hall said many of the 35 Connect ambassadors will meet with their classes on a regular basis through Skype, offering insights on the scientific news of the day or discussing interesting work in their labs.
Kelsey Gray, a fourth year graduate student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology program, took things a step further, traveling monthly to Massey Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville to meet with her class. At the start of the year, she said she partnered with the teacher, Dali Emami, to find ways to expand upon the course material. As the year progressed, she was able to have a bit more freedom with her lessons.
“From the start, I wanted the students to understand that they could lead the way, and I was here to help them,” Gray said.
Gray’s research work is currently focused on spinal muscular atrophy. She and her colleagues use fruit fly models to study the condition, gaining valuable information from fruit fly brain dissection.
“When I mentioned that, the whole class just was so interested and had so many questions and so the next time I visited, I brought pictures and videos that explain exactly how we do the dissection.”
Gray says getting out of the lab and into the classroom has actually proven beneficial to her research.
“Day after day, focusing on one small, specific process can sort of bog you down,” Gray said. “It’s always helpful to me to step back and think a little more broadly.”
Plus, she said, the students’ enthusiasm for science is familiar.
“I first became excited about science when I was around their age,” Gray said. “And, of course I still am, but in a much different way, so I just try and share that excitement with them and make sure they understand all of the possibilities.”
Hall said other former ambassadors, PhD students and post-docs, who have moved on to other institutions, have taken DNA Day with them. Last year, Kansas DNA Day was the first statewide initiative to take place outside of North Carolina. This year, DNA Day spread to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee.
In addition to the increased geographical footprint, ten years of NC DNA Day has helped establish the program in the minds of graduate students like Gray, who cites it as one of the reasons she chose to come to UNC for her graduate work.
“I’m interested in science education and outreach and so finding a well-developed program like this was important to me,” Gray said. “Ultimately, I knew I would do DNA Day before I even arrived at UNC.”