Public engagement with science is imperative every day, but DNA Day provides the opportunity to make it a priority. Christina explained that her organization’s mission helps demystify science for students, and that “Many scientists’ careers aren’t linear. The simple act of awareness can help students know what other fields are out there in science outside of doctors and nurses.”
Ways to Get Involved
The speakers outlined numerous ways and resources for involvement:
National Events: Carla described larger DNA Day-related events that NHGRI oversees. Students are able to visit the NIH Campus and go on lab tours, and NHGRI facilitates interactive programming with the Smithsonian Institute, a lecture, and a seminar series. Past events are listed online, and 2019 events should be available soon.
Maurice encouraged listeners to get involved in ASHG’s Annual DNA Day Essay Contest. This year’s contest addresses the disclosure of a genetic diagnosis to one’s family. Participating students can win cash prizes and funding for their science programs at school.
Local Events: Christina’s program is localized to Michigan, but many other states offer events like it. If your state does not have an organization in place, scientists could simply reach out to their local schools and offer to speak with them for one class period. Teachers should also not be hesitant to reach out to professors at local colleges. Christina said, “Keep it simple! If you just make one contact at one school, it was worth the effort, because it will have an impact.”
Resources & Best Practices
The speakers provided several resources, including:
Michigan DNA Day’s website is a great place to start if you’re considering going into a classroom for DNA Day! There’s information for teachers, scientists, and students.
An overarching theme was to make your interactions as hands-on as possible. Christina says that when engaging with students, it should be “less about teaching and more about the interaction with science.” If students are given something physical to do, it’s more likely to stick with them.
Similarly, Maurice kept activities hands-on and interactive when developing a DNA Day program for the Omaha Zoo and Aquarium’s “Key to Diversity in Animals and People Festival,” a larger event that lasted a whole weekend.
Posted by: Alexis Norris, PhD, Member of ASHG Information & Education Committee
I’m pleased to share that the ASHG Information & Education (I&E) Committee has revamped the previous Genetic Education Outreach Network (GEON) program as the Genetics Engagement & Education Network. The purpose of this program is to create a network for ASHG members to engage and educate. Members of the network will receive a quarterly newsletter, have access to a toolkit of educational resources vetted by the I&E Committee, and have their name added to the Network directory. The directory can be used by ASHG members to find speakers and collaborators, and by the public to connect with members about human genetics-related questions. Questions often range from visiting a classroom, to hosting a field trip, to offering academic and schooling advice.
In our world of wide-reaching, fast paced, and bite-sized communication, we are faced with communicating our science to many audiences, from fellow scientists in our field to the lay public. It is challenging to share information in a way that it is both approachable and understandable. Engaging in education outreach can improve your science communication, through the experience of deconstructing complex concepts into their digestible parts, and identifying what sparks the audience’s interest.
The toolkit and newsletter will also give members access to new ideas about how to communicate and educate. ASHG members can enroll in the Network through the ASHG portal indicating their geographical region and outreach audiences of interest (e.g., high school, college, or general public).
For teachers, inviting an ASHG member to their classroom has immediate and clear benefits for their students. First, the activity can be timed to coincide with genetics lessons, thus reinforcing concepts and their applications. The ASHG member also provides a tangible example of a career path in genetics, and a potential resource and networking connection for the students.
Why I Find Genetics Outreach Rewarding and Impactful
I got involved with genetics outreach during my graduate training. Over the last eight years of outreach in high schools across the state of Maryland, I have found that I have the biggest impact on students in rural regions that are far from research institutions, where the students have limited exposure and access to genetics research. At the ASHG Annual Meeting in San Diego last fall, I spent two days before the meeting in Ms. Heather Gastill’s biology classes at the local Mission Bay High School. I had the students identify fish by DNA sequences on paper slips, using real sequencing data from Thomsen et al. For thirty minutes, the students helped each other decode the 100 sequences, creating a barplot of the frequency of different fish species on the classroom whiteboard.
My favorite moment was when each class: (1) calculated the time it would have taken them to go identify the full dataset (millions of sequences), (2) laughed at the absurdity of how long it would take them, and then (3) was mesmerized by my slide that showed how I did it in a couple of hours on my laptop with just a few sentences of bioinformatics code. After each class, a few students would ask me how they can become a bioinformatician. That is why I love genetics outreach.
Ready to join the Genetics Engagement & Education Network? Learn more on the ASHG website.
Alexis Norris, PhD, joined the ASHG Information & Education (I&E) Committee during her postdoctoral training at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is currently a Bioinformatician at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Guest Post By: Heather A. Zierhut, PhD, MS, CGC; and Adam H. Buchanan, MS, MPH, LGC
Genetic counselors’ advanced training in – you guessed it – genetics and counseling, plays a key role in healthcare. Genetic counselors can guide and support people seeking more information about how inherited diseases and conditions might affect them or their families, and help interpret test results. While many genetic counselors work directly with patients, others focus on research to help in the development of new or improved treatment or care for people with genetic conditions. In honor of Genetic Counselor Awareness Day on Nov. 8, National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) members Heather A. Zierhut, PhD, MS, CGC, and Adam H. Buchanan, MS, MPH, LGC, share how their research is shaping the future of genetic counseling and precision medicine.
NSGC: What inspired you to be a genetic counselor?
Heather: I think there are two main categories of people who become genetic counselors: those who have a long exploration into the profession or those who have a light bulb moment. My entrance into genetic counseling was like a laser light show. My undergraduate genetics professor briefly mentioned the career. Like any good researcher, I went to my tiny matchbook size dorm room and looked up everything I could possibly find on the topic. Fireworks were going off in my mind. Genetic counseling was love at first literature search.
Adam: I’m one of those long exploration types. In college I cycled through several possible career choices. My career research was a great source of stories about the (sometimes gross) lives of a veterinary technician or hospital employee who cleans up after surgeries. But, nothing grabbed me until I worked with a genetic counselor while doing my thesis in a master’s of public health program. I loved the way genetic counseling combined the communication skills I was learning as a public health educator with the connections you make while interacting with patients.
NSGC: How did you first get involved in genetic counseling research?
Heather: Like many aspiring Principal Investigators, my gateway to research was undergraduate summer programs. I loved the idea of being able to set up experiments, ask questions, and get answers all in a three-month time span. But after experimenting in yeast and fruit fly labs, I found myself wanting to research something different. I switched gears to my ultimate organism of interest, humans. It all started with two genetics icons, Janet and Marc Williams, giving me a small research project looking at outcomes of early hearing screening tests. Even after making the decision to pursue genetic counseling, I never lost my desire for research. I searched for a training program where I could find mentors to support my interest in clinical care and research. The desire for research mentors was first and foremost in my decision to go to the University of Minnesota.
Adam: When my kids were little and their favorite question was “why?”, I knew they came by it honestly – it’s always been one of my favorite questions, too. As a genetic counselor I sought out ways to answer the whys that arose in my clinical work. Like Heather, I was fortunate to have colleagues willing to indulge those questions and a mentor who looked for opportunities to involve me in all phases of research during my research apprenticeship – including writing and reviewing manuscripts and learning the ins and outs of grant proposal preparation. So, when I was driving home from a rural cancer genetics clinic one day and had a light bulb moment about how to more efficiently improve access to care, I had the tools to turn that spark into a viable research project.
NSGC: What do you enjoy about genetic counseling research?
Heather: You either love and appreciate the ups and downs of research or you gut out the experimentation period in hope and anticipation of the day you get those final results. As much as I wish I could say that I love to stop and smell the research roses, I do not. I am a destination data person. Getting results is my favorite part of research. It’s like the best holidays all wrapped into one called Data Day. Knowing this about myself, I chose to pursue a doctoral degree in genetics and epidemiology with research projects that give me data sooner rather than later.
Adam: I’m totally with Heather on her love of Data Day. I also love thinking about the research process as crafting a story. If everything falls into place, you develop this beautiful narrative that arcs from why your research topic is important to patients all the way to how the study you’ve proposed will generate data that will help those patients. It’s a challenging process that takes a lot of tinkering and being able to communicate the big picture while having your details in order. That’s why it’s such great fun when it works.
NSGC:What advice do you have for aspiring genetic counseling researchers?
Heather: I shifted research directions completely after completing my PhD. The shift was the right direction for my newly developed skill set, but I needed help getting started. I reached out to people with expertise and asked them to assist me. I applied for numerous early investigator grants and was told repeatedly that I needed more experience in the field. Not letting it slow me down too much, I started collecting pilot data to build my case. Others in the field started to take notice and I was asked to be on several national committees. These combined efforts led to funding through the Jane Engelberg Memorial Fellowship, a grant intended to promote the professional development of individual counselors and to improve the practice of genetic counseling. This took persistence and a following a slightly different path than I had envisioned. My advice is don’t be afraid to take risks and get out of your comfort zone.
Adam: All research starts with a good idea. And our clinical experience can provide a wealth of research ideas. Pay attention to the whys that linger in your mind after seeing patients. Also, researchers fail. Sometimes spectacularly – unfunded grant proposals, rejected manuscripts, and studies that go off the rails. This is a particular challenge for the over-achievers who make up the ranks of genetics professionals. But, it’s an inevitable part of doing research that moves the field forward. Keep your head up, rely on the mentors Heather mentioned – they’re out there and they really do want to help – and learn from everything. Finally, find a research focus that gets you jazzed. It’s a lot easier to be persistent when you’re excited about your work.
NSGC: What genetic counseling research are you working on now?
Heather: My current research is on the vast under-diagnosis of familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) and issues that arise in communication of genetic information in FH families. There are 1 in 250 people out there with a treatable genetic cause of high cholesterol. It’s my research and my job to make sure that people with FH know the risks and have opportunities to prevent heart disease in their families. But as with anything having to do with families and communication, it’s complex. Our research team chips away at finding ways to screen families and help them become aware of their heart disease risks. We hope to give an opportunity to end the cycle of heart disease in their family.
Adam: I’m leading a group that was just funded by the NIH to study how children and their parents react to receiving genomic results for conditions that do not occur until adulthood (such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome). There are lots of intriguing questions we’re hoping to answer in this study, particularly about the psychosocial impact of this information and how family members use it to guide their healthcare. It’s a topic that has been written about a bunch, but there’s barely any empirical data to guide whether and how to provide this information to families in practice. We’re looking forward to adding our story to the mix and helping families in the process.
Heather Zierhut is the associate director of the University of Minnesota Graduate Program of Study in Genetic Counseling and assistant professor in Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development. Current areas of research include the psychosocial and public implications involved with the provision of genetic counseling services, implementations of whole genome sequencing, and outcomes of genetic counseling.
Adam Buchanan is an assistant professor in the Genomic Medicine Institute at Geisinger, Co-Director of the MyCode Genomic Screening and Counseling program, and a member of the American Board of Genetic Counseling. His research focuses on access to genetic counseling and assessing behavioral and psychosocial outcomes of genetic counseling.
We’re giving a big ASHG welcome to Dyanna Christopher, MPH!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.