DNA Day ambassadors reach out to North Carolina high schools

April 21, 2008 — What do the cartoon character Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons” and Hollywood actor Brad Pitt have in common?

Physically, not much. But it is elements of pop culture such as these that young scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will use to grab the attention of high school students across the state this Friday (April 25).

That’s when more than 200 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in medicine and science from several universities will visit almost 180 schools as part of DNA Day, an annual commemoration of two key scientific breakthroughs – the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953, and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.

The event aims to engage and excite students about genomics and to inform them about career options available in the numerous scientific fields that deal with DNA, such as forensics, biotechnology, and the study of genes and disease.

But not every high schooler is interested in science, and explaining the complicated notions involved in DNA is not the easiest thing in the world.

That’s where Krusty the Clown and Brad Pitt come in, according to DNA Day Ambassador Michelle Itano, a second year graduate student in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of cell and developmental biology.

The two pop-culture icons play a part in an interactive teaching module put together by Itano and several of her fellow ambassadors. The celebrities’ widely recognized features not only get students’ attention, but help illustrate scientific concepts: in Pitt’s case, how genetic traits such as his photogenic looks can pass from one generation to the next; in Krusty’s case, whether some genetically influenced disease could be the cause of his wild blue hair, pale complexion and oversized feet.

“It makes it more relatable to the students,” said Itano. “A complex topic like genetics can get very heavy. Having something that makes the high school students laugh brings them in closer. We, the graduate students, enjoy that as well. It’s fun to interact with the kids on that level, it doesn’t all have to be technical.”

The genes and disease presentation is one of just nine modules that will be used on DNA Day, with different ambassadors using different presentations depending on their field of expertise.

As well as helping communicate the science of DNA, ambassadors will talk about their day-to-day lives working as researchers, and prompt discussions about topics such as the ethical considerations involving genomics that people increasingly need to understand when making health care decisions.

“The main aim is to interact with the students and to have them feel like they have something they can take away, whether it be dispelling the stereotype that all scientists wear white coats and are very serious, or having a better understanding of how they can use some of the information we’ve presented in their own lives,” said Itano.

On Friday, students and teachers can also participate in national recognition of DNA Day through a live, moderated online chat at http://www.genome.gov/DNADay , staffed by experts from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET. Researchers, genetic counselors, bioethicists and policy experts from the institute will be on hand to field questions from students on a wide range of topics, including basic science, clinical research, genomic careers and the ethical, legal and social implications of genomic research. For those unable to participate in the live event, a variety of free, educational tools on genetics and genomics, including webcasts, podcasts and an online multimedia presentation are also available at the Web site.

Along with UNC-Chapel Hill researchers, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from North Carolina Central, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Wake Forest and Duke universities and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – as well as scientists from GlaxoSmithKline – will take part.

This year’s tally of more than 200 ambassadors and nearly 180 high schools represents a large expansion on last year’s DNA Day, when about 100 ambassadors visited about 70 schools.

Sponsors include UNC’s Institute for Pharmacogenomics, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Center for Genomics and Society and the medical school’s program in molecular biology and biotechnology; Inspire; Roche; the GlaxoSmithKline Foundation; Duke’s Office of Postdoctoral Services, Office of Community Affairs and Office of Graduate Affairs; and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

NOTE: Media can check if DNA Day Ambassadors are visiting schools in their area by checking the Excel spreadsheet on the NC DNA Day homepage: http://www.ncdnaday.org/index.html

NC DNA Day contact: Pat Phelps, (919) 843-1570, pphelps@email.unc.edu
UNC News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu
NHGRI contact: Carla Easter, (301) 594-1364, easterc@mail.nih.gov