Welcome ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow Dyanna Christopher

By: Staff

We’re giving a big ASHG welcome to Dyanna Christopher, MPH!

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Dyanna Christopher, MPH, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow (courtesy Mrs. Christopher)

Dyanna started the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship in August. We sat down and discussed her passion for genetics education and engagement, and what led her to this fellowship. ASHG and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) co-sponsor this fellowship to support early-career genetics professionals wishing to transition to careers in genetics education and public engagement.

ASHG: Why did you apply for the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship?

Dyanna: I’m interested in opportunities that aim to address populations without a background in genetics. These publics can range from medical health professionals who never studied genetics to members of lower-income and minority communities who don’t have enough health literacy to make important health care decisions that can be determined by their genetic predispositions. Because of the rotational structure of this fellowship, it was clear that this position would give me the opportunity to bridge those gaps in knowledge for health care professionals and the nonscientific community.

ASHG: How did your background lead you to education/engagement centered around genetics?

Dyanna: Believe it or not, my interest in genetics began in high school, where I was able to take my first genetics related classes. I got a BA from the University of Pittsburgh in English Writing with a pre-health track. During my undergrad, I completed an independent study project examining stigma as it relates to genetic diseases and the media. I found that most of the stigma and fear came from a lack of genetic education. I also shadowed scientists and healthcare professionals and got to see firsthand the empowerment that came when a person used their familial history and genetic test results to make medical decisions.

I went on to get my master’s from the University of Pittsburgh in Public Health Genetics. My thesis was focused on patient barriers to initial genetic risk assessment and follow up services. Some of the barriers we looked at were stigma, religion, and education. We found that the community we observed had many misconceptions about genetics and how it relates to health.  People were afraid to discuss their genetic predispositions. I would call to tell patients their screenings indicated they might want to consider making a follow up appointment to discuss their detailed family history to see if they qualified for additional genetic services, and even that information made patients nervous. It was clear that genetic services were being misunderstood. It’s important to communicate that even if you have a genetic predisposition to something like breast cancer, that is not a death sentence; it’s merely another factor to consider when making medical decisions.

I was also a Patient Navigator for the American Cancer Society. In this position I actively engaged with different communities by organizing events with the purpose of educating the audience about breast cancer and screening. I was additionally able to partner with other community stakeholders to gain a better understanding of what type of education events the communities would be receptive to.

ASHG: Is there a specific area of engagement or education that interests you most?

Dyanna: To be perfectly honest, everyone could benefit from better genetic education, so I have a very broad interest. But from my background and involvement in different communities, lower-income and minority populations have a special place in my heart because they have several factors affecting their access to genetic services and education. One of my goals is to address the health disparities seen in this community.

ASHG: What do you hope to accomplish in this position?

Dyanna: I hope to help close the knowledge gap about genetics for a variety of publics. I also hope I can highlight the importance of careers like genetic counseling, genetic research and genetic education and encourage others to pursue those positions so that there can be better avenues for utilization of genetic information and personalized medicine and care. I hope that medical professionals who don’t have genetics backgrounds will have better access to resources which will help them integrate genetics into their patient care.

ASHG: Any advice for fellow scientists interested in transitioning to engagement/education?

Dyanna: Don’t be afraid to apply for fellowships! I knew about the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship last year, but was concerned the application process would be too daunting for me to take on when I was finishing graduate school. I expected it to be as lengthy as my grad school applications, but it wasn’t, and I was disappointed I didn’t apply sooner.

If you’re still an undergrad, be open to taking classes outside of your major that will expose you to your other interests. If you didn’t take the classes during your undergrad, then look for opportunities in graduate school to indulge some of those interests. See if you can take courses at other schools/departments. Internships and volunteer opportunities are another great way to get exposure to a different field if you don’t have space in your schedule.  My graduate school offered community engagement and community-based research courses that were helpful. Reaching out to potential mentors can also help you figure out if education is right for you. Find people who are doing what you want to do and connect with them. Professionals in this field see the growing need for more geneticists, so we are very receptive to people interested in what we’re doing.

Overall, there’s no linear path into education and engagement. Volunteer, network, and take classes outside of your regular course of study to see if this could be the right fit for you!

Background on the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship

This unique fellowship provides several experiences: working with NHGRI’s Education and Community Involvement Branch; working with the education department at ASHG; and an optional third experience working with another organization involved in substantive science education or public engagement initiatives. Applications open in February.

Starting Your Postdoc Hunt: When and How to Prepare

Posted By: Rohit Thakur, Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

“What are your plans after PhD”? – one of the most daunting and stressful questions often asked to graduate students. For many pursuing a career in academia, the obvious next step is a postdoctoral position.

The ideal time to start applying for postdocs is one year away from your graduation. At the beginning of the final year of my PhD, I made a list of institutes to explore. Based on this list, I directly contacted the principal investigators (PIs) whose work I found really exciting. After hearing back from them, I arranged a meeting with them to learn about their research. This provided a wonderful opportunity to network and establish professional relationships with them.

I also found the Conference to Career chat sessions with field experts extremely useful. At one of the sessions, Prof. Fred Winston shared very useful tips on setting criteria for choosing a postdoc lab, such as quality of mentorship, success rate of previous postdocs in academia, and publication rate of the lab. If you start early you are more likely to end up with multiple offers by the time you finish your PhD.

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Mr. Thakur discusses his poster presentation with Martin Lauss, PhD, Lund University, at the 2017 Joint GenoMEL/BioGenoMEL/MELGEN Scientific Meeting (courtesy Mr. Thakur)

Don’t Underestimate Geography

Starting a postdoc hunt can be overwhelming, given the numerous places a graduate student can potentially apply to. It can become easier if you can think about where (geographically) you would like to do a postdoc. After identifying a region, you just have to locate the productive labs that do the science that you find exciting.

Network, Network, Network!

If you are going to a conference, write to PIs beforehand whose work you find interesting. Network with them by inviting them to your poster and follow up with them afterward.

Start Your Application Early

Visit lab websites of PIs who you are interested in working with and pay close attention to the lab’s current interests required skills for postdocs. Use this time to develop a skill that will increase your visibility as a potential candidate. Write PIs an informal query about potential postdoc positions to PIs, including your CV and cover letter, and get your material proofread by your mentor and colleagues.

Get Your PhD Research Paper Ready to Submit

Showcasing your PhD research is a great way to convince future PIs about your skills and your ability to lead a project independently. If you have a paper ready to be submitted to a journal, get its preprint out on bioRxiv and mention it on your CV.

Seek Advice and Feedback

If you are contacting a field expert, openly ask for feedback and advice about your current research project. This is a great way to interact and establish professional relationships with PIs.

Finally, get out of your comfort zone. Aim higher but be realistic. Keep applying until you land an offer from your dream lab. I would also recommend attending the ASHG/JAX Conference to Career Program for honing your networking skills.

Acknowledgments: I am highly thankful to my supervisors Jenny Barrett, PhD; Julia Newton-Bishop, MD, MBChB, FMedSci; Jeremie Nsengimana, PhD; and Göran Jönsson, PhD, for their exceptional mentorship; and European Commission Horizon 2020 program for funding my PhD.

Rohit Thakur, B. Tech, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds. He has been an ASHG member since 2017.

 

DNA Day Wins ASAE Power of A Award

Posted By: Mona Miller, ASHG Executive Director

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We are pleased to share that our National DNA Day Essay Contest has received an ASAE Power of A Silver Award. These awards recognize a select number of organizations annually that distinguish themselves with innovative, effective, and broad-reaching programs that positively impact the United States and the world.

ASHG’s DNA Day Essay Contest began in 2005 and is open to students in grades 9-12 around the world. Participants are encouraged to work with their teacher to write a 750-word essay responding to the year’s question. The question is selected with the goal of pushing students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in genetics, which are not normally covered in a typical high school biology curriculum. The goal of the question is for students to expand their knowledge of human genetics and to use evidence-based critical thinking in their response.

The contest has grown from around 300 essay submissions in its first years to over a thousand submissions in 2018. This year, ASHG received essays from 43 U.S. states and 23 countries who explored how genetics is informing, shaping, and changing our lives, after which more than 350 ASHG members evaluated the results for accuracy, creativity, and writing.

The contest also engages our members, who act as reviewers and judges for the contest, in an activity that ties them to public outreach and creating the next generation of geneticists. Each year, around 500 members volunteer for this rewarding and worthwhile experience.

The DNA Day Essay Contest has become a signature of ASHG and we are proud of the high number of participants and member volunteers, the satisfaction of our volunteers, and the chance to expand students’ education of human genetics.  We are thrilled to have been recognized for this long-standing program that is an embodiment of ASHG engagement and creativity.

A big thank you to all teachers, students, and member volunteers who have participated over the years!

 

Genetics Outreach and Donations at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School

Posted By: Kanika Pulliam, Senior Manager, Education and Career Development Programs

On the overcast and rainy morning of May 10, the ASHG Education Team (Kelly Ventura, Senior Director of Education and Membership; Karen Hanson, Senior Manager, Education Programs; Evelyn Mantegani, Education Coordinator; and myself) headed to Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, a public school in northwest Washington, DC. The school houses an Academy of Health Sciences, which prepares students for college and careers in health-related professions.

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The ASHG Education Team talked genetics and related careers with students at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Washington, DC. (courtesy Kelly Ventura)

As ASHG was preparing to move our main offices to a new building, we discovered a lot of new and gently used lab equipment and supplies in our storage room. There were things like a PCR machine, water bath, and DNA gel electrophoresis items. The supplies were previously purchased to facilitate experiments with educators who developed lesson plans for high school students. With no future plans for the supplies, we decided to donate them to a local high school, and identified Coolidge High School with the help of former ASHG Genetics Education and & Engagement Fellow Teresa Ramirez.

The day of the visit, Kelly and Karen graciously drove in their monster cars for us to load up and transport the many boxes to the school. We were greeted by Zakiya Edens, Coordinator of the Career Academy. She led us to the Academy of Health Sciences room, where we discussed the science program and its strategy to motivate students to come to class and maintain good grades. Students in this special academy participate in additional classes and programs on top of their regular curriculum to prepare for college.

We then met with some academy students, followed by a biology class that was discussing basic genetic concepts and the structure of DNA. Karen and I talked about our roles at ASHG to give the students an idea of career options in the sciences beyond traditional professions like scientist or medical doctor. I shared how they can use their background and love for research to educate scientists and clinicians interested in human genetics. Karen connected to the students by discussing her role as a genetic counselor for the past 25 years and showed them how genetic counselors work with a team of medical professionals to offer the best advice to patients.

We enjoyed the experience of chatting with teachers, administrators, and students. We are now working with Coolidge High School to organize a visit from an ASHG Genetics Education Outreach Network (GEON) volunteer member, to help the teachers go through the donated items and plan experiments for the new school year. GEON is a network of ASHG members who volunteer their time to assist science teachers in building understanding of human genetics among students and the general public.

Kanika Pulliam, PhD, is Senior Manager of Education and Career Development Programs at ASHG. For more on ASHG’s programs for science students, visit our K-12 education website.

Celebrate DNA Day 2018 with ASHG

Posted By: Jannine Cody, PhD, Chair, ASHG Information & Education Committee

Happy DNA Day! Every April 25, we commemorate the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, two key milestones in genetics. A variety of DNA Day events are taking place worldwide and online, including the debut of our ’15 for 15′ infographics on recent advances in human genetics – check them out!

ASHG marks this date each year by announcing the winners of our Annual DNA Day Essay Contest. Open to high school students worldwide, this year’s contest asked students to share their views on whether medical professionals, such as medical geneticists or genetic counselors, should be required for all genetic testing, or if consumers should have direct access to predictive genetic testing.

We received over 1000 entries from 43 U.S. states and 23 countries. Essays went through three rounds of scoring by ASHG members, who selected a first, second, and third place winner as well as 10 honorable mentions. (Want to participate next year? Read Dennis Drayna’s blog post on the judging experience.)

The winning essays were thoughtful and nuanced, reflecting a variety of views and a sophisticated consideration of the issues, and we were excited to see high-quality entries from several countries around the world. We awarded first place to Diane Zhang, a junior at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y.; second place to Ilan Bocia, a senior at YULA-Boys in Los Angeles, Calif.; and third place to Nadia O’Hara, a freshman at Pechersk School International in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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For a full list of winners, honorable mentions, and teachers, and to read the winning essays, check out the DNA Day 2018 Winners. Through this contest and our other K-12 initiatives, we hope to encourage young people to explore genetics and inspire the next generation of ASHG members and leaders.

Jannine Cody, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, is Chair of ASHG’s Information & Education Committee. Learn more about ASHG’s K-12 education programs.

Judging DNA Day Essay Submissions: A Look Inside the Process

Posted by: Dennis Drayna, PhD, NIDCD, National Institutes of Health

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Dennis Drayna, PhD, NIDCD (photo courtesy Dr. Drayna)

I’ve served as a judge for the DNA Day Essay Contest for a number of years now. Every year, I look forward to seeing the efforts of high school students across the world who are grappling with an interesting problem in contemporary human genetics.

This year’s essay question asks students to argue if consumers should or should not have direct access to predictive genetic testing. The results of their efforts vary, of course, but I never cease to be amazed at the level of sophistication displayed by many of them. If you have concerns about society drifting toward less trust of scientific knowledge, you’ll find many of the essays reassuring. All of the entrants’ efforts bolster the view that evidence-based critical thinking is alive and well among today’s motivated and ambitious young people, some of whom will constitute the future generation of our Society’s leaders.

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the evolution in the students’ use of online resources. The traditional scholarly style, with ample use of references to relevant papers in the peer-reviewed literature, always represented a very high standard for students of high school age. The best essays always bore evidence of liberal use of PubMed, and they still do. However, Wikipedia provided an easier entry into this process, and as Wikipedia became a richer and more detailed resource, students began to avail themselves of it. Less ambitious efforts then began to show evidence of using simple Google searches, which themselves have become more effective over time. Some of the less stellar efforts now seem to rely on social media as an information source. Here, I find the chance to provide comments or feedback one of the more satisfying aspects of the judging process.

I have always volunteered as a Round 2 judge, and as far as I’m concerned, the less glamorous part of judging is done for us in Round 1, when the lower quality essays are removed before we Round 2 judges see them, so we’re typically distinguishing between fairly good, very good, and outstanding essays. I’ll admit that as a researcher who does very little teaching (and zero grading of exams or essays), judging these essays doesn’t feel much like any of my regular obligations. And, the workload is very manageable (made easier by the rubric), the website is intuitive and easy to navigate, and it’s always satisfying to contribute to the efforts of ASHG.

If you want to give back a little, judging ASHG DNA Day essays is an easy way to do it. And if we can provide a little support for developing the scientific workforce of the future, so much the better.

Dennis Drayna, PhD, is Chief of the Laboratory of Communication Disorders and Chief of the Section on Genetics of Communication Disorders at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the NIH. A longtime member of ASHG, he has served as a judge of DNA Day essay submissions since 2014.

Interested in judging DNA Day essays this year? Email dnaday@ashg.org to sign up.

Behind-the-Scenes: Developing the DNA Day Essay Question

Posted By: Evelyn Mantegani, BA, ASHG Education Coordinator

For teachers and students participating in the DNA Day Essay Contest, each year’s question seems to appear on the website out of thin air. While that would be simpler for us on the Question Committee, it wouldn’t be any fun.

20180118_DNAday-logoOur goal every year is to craft a challenging, thought-provoking, and current question. We often have a hard time narrowing down our choices because of our excitement for the potential answers from students, and turn to a variety of resources to help.

Soon after celebrating DNA Day on April 25, we launch into discussions for the next year’s question. This year’s Question Committee included myself, the rest of the Education Department, our former Genetics & Education Fellow Teresa Ramirez, and our former Executive Vice President Joe McInerney. First, we look over questions from previous years to determine what worked and what didn’t. We consider a question to be less successful if there are fewer submissions or it has a concept too difficult for students to grasp. We then look through a list of potential questions that has been built up in recent years. We pick our favorites, alter some, add on to others, and brainstorm new questions based on what is new in genetics. What follows is weeks of discussion about how to shape our top choices to be both challenging and accessible to high school-aged students around the globe.

This part of the process is often the most difficult, as we try to figure out how to get the wording perfect. When satisfied, we send three pilot questions to a group of teachers to vote and critique via survey. We ask questions like whether students would understand the question prompt and whether they would be interested in the question topic. Our pilot group of teachers are longtime contest participants who have submitted more than four essays each year over the past five years and are from public and private schools, as well as from various states and countries. Based on their vote, our 2018 question, which asks students to argue if consumers should or should not have direct access to predictive genetic testing, was chosen as the winner.

Now that we have finalized the question, we are excited to see the responses. I think this year’s question will be especially thought-provoking because direct-to-consumer genetic testing is becoming increasingly popular and accessible. And now, it’s on to the contest.

ASHG Members: If you would like to participate as a judge in this year’s essay contest, look out for a recruitment email in February. Please keep in mind that you must be a current ASHG member to judge DNA Day essays. If you have any questions, please email dnaday@ashg.org.

Students and Teachers: We are now accepting essay submissions via the DNA Day website. The deadline is March 9.

Evelyn Mantegani, BA, is Education Coordinator at ASHG. For more information on ASHG’s programs for K-12 students and teachers, visit the education website.