Posted by: Kate Garber, Chair of the ASHG Communications Committee
In September, I interviewed Neil Lamb, PhD, Vice President for Educational Outreach at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, about his career trajectory, favorite resources, and current projects.
Kate: Tell us about your position and how it fits into your institution and its goals.
Neil: HudsonAlpha is a non-profit organization in Huntsville, Alabama, that focuses on using genomics to improve human health and global sustainability. My team’s mandate is to create a more genomically literate society and to foster the development of the next generation workforce in Alabama. Our efforts encompass many different activities including teacher training workshops, the development of educational kits, courses and seminars on biotechnology for the greater Huntsville community, and even the development of educational apps. I work with an incredible team that makes this all happen, and these programs reached 1.5 million people during the last school year.
As part of our efforts, we have partnered with the Alabama Department of Education, specifically at the K-12 level. We want students to understand the growing importance of genetics and genomics, to develop ways to meet the educational standards on these topics, to help teachers confidently teach these subjects, and to get students to make connections between potential careers and the facts in their textbooks. As part of this work, we identify learning gaps related to genomics and ask, “How can we step in and address them?”
Kate: What have been some of the biggest surprises to you about working with your state government? Do you have any advice about working with non-scientists in these types of situations?
Neil: The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been how engaged people are about genomics. No matter what level I’m working at, many people are beginning to recognize its importance, and they all want to know more. This curiosity is a great starting point, and it means we can easily find a talking point that interests people and use that as a springboard.
When talking with non-scientists, look for an area of common interest between what you’re doing and what interests the person you’re talking to. You might have to talk about multiple things until you see that light of recognition. When you do find an area of common ground, grab onto it and use it as a point of reference to start making connections.
It’s important to keep your conversation as free of jargon as possible, at least when you start. We are so used to the detailed language we use with our peers, it’s hard to take a step back and have a more general conversation, but it is so important to have people walk away understanding the importance of your work and the help you need, that you really must put it in terms they can grasp.
If you want to talk to someone about a very specific topic, walk them into that content by scaffolding it to something they already know and understand. It’s very difficult for somebody to internalize new knowledge if they can’t tie it to something they already know.
I believe that when you use public funding for your science, you have an obligation to explain to the public what it’s about. And this community outreach aspect was very important to the founders of HudsonAlpha, so I have the support of the larger organization in this.
Kate: How did your previous experience lead you to this job?
Neil: I look back at everything from my graduate training on, and each of those things prepared me for what I’m doing now. My graduate training and time on the faculty at Emory gave me an understanding of the field, the language, and the vocabulary I have needed. After my PhD, I spent two years working at a church doing communications work and outreach to families, which gave me the comfort and confidence to step into challenging conversations in a sensitive way and to talk about science to non-scientists. While at Emory, I directed a research-based DNA testing lab, which gave me familiarity with the tools, instrumentation, and challenges of DNA variant detection and interpretation. I also taught medical students at Emory, which confirmed my passion for teaching and emphasized to me that I’m a much stronger educator than a research scientist.
This recognition helped with the shift in my career. All of these experiences help me, as VP of Educational Outreach, talk about complicated topics that are often fraught with emotional and ethical issues to a broad range of individuals. They’ve helped me find the right analogies and language, and really translate science going on here and elsewhere into tools, applications, and experiences that engage students, teachers, clinicians, and the public. What I do today, I could not have done without the skills I learned at each of those previous jobs.
Kate: What are your favorite genetics websites and resources?
Neil: I spend a lot of time looking for recent genetic discoveries that I can share, and I use what I find as the sources for an annual guidebook on biotechnology that I craft. I’m always reviewing papers and summaries looking for materials. My go-to sources are things like The Scientist, GenomeWeb, and Genome magazine, and I spend a significant amount of time with the “This Month in Genetics” section of The American Journal of Human Genetics. (Note from Kate, who writes that section in AJHG: I absolutely did not bribe him to say that!)
For K-12 stuff that I recommend for students and educators, I’m a really big fan of learn.genetics out of Salt Lake City and Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code, which was developed with NHGRI for an exhibit and whose website has ongoing content and resources.
Kate: What are you currently reading/thinking about/working on?
Neil: We are putting an intentional emphasis on bioinformatics and computation. We are working on a project with two- and four-year schools across Alabama where students will be computationally modeling the impact of DNA variants that we are identifying in patient populations here at HudsonAlpha. We are trying to help undergraduates learn some of the concepts and tools around genomics, including bioinformatics tools and comparative genomics, so it’s going to be fun to watch how that evolves.
At the high school level, the state of Alabama has a number of projects underway to help celebrate the state’s bicentennial in 2019, and we have one project called “Bicentennial Barcoding”. We are working with high school classrooms across the state in partnership with wildlife preserves, nature centers, botanical gardens, and communities to identify native Alabama plants and then DNA barcode them. We want students to recognize the rich diversity of plant life in the state and to think about ways to protect it, and then we want to tie genetics, biotechnology, and computation to it to give them a different angle to look at those plants.
These are just a couple of many projects they we have going on right now. They are great ways to look at how we can push what we do here at HudsonAlpha out into the community and really build excitement and enthusiasm in lots of places across the state.
Kate: What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your superpower?
Neil: My superpower is communicating complex topics in an easy to understand way. That is the essence of who I am. There are a lot of things that I am not, but being able to communicate things in a way that people say “Oh, I get that!” – I’m really good at that, and I think that’s why this job at HudsonAlpha is a great job for me. It’s all about taking the science and its applications and finding ways to tell those concepts, tell those stories, so that people say “Wow! That’s cool!” or “Wait, that’s a job I could consider?” or “Now I understand that soundbite I heard on the radio”.
Kate: I would go one further and say that one of your other superpowers is getting people excited about this stuff. It’s not just the language you use, it’s also that you do it in such a way that I can see how excited you are and that makes me excited about it too.
Neil: One of my team’s philosophies is to think about how we can create sparks that ignite somebody else’s enthusiasm or love of learning or desire to want to know more.
Neil Lamb, PhD, is Vice President for Educational Outreach at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. He has been a member of ASHG since 2000, served on its Information & Education Committee from 2003-05, and chaired the I&E Committee from 2007-09.