How I Work: Neil Lamb

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.

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Neil Lamb, PhD, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (courtesy Dr. Lamb)

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.

 

 

Innovate Your Genetics Teaching with ASHG’s Revamped BEGIn Program

Posted By: Michael Dougherty, PhD, ASHG Director of Education

You flash the clicker question on the screen and give your students about a minute to read it and vote. Your students don’t realize it, but you know it’s not your average clicker question. The distracters aren’t simply incorrect; they’ve all been carefully designed to reflect common student mistakes or misconceptions. As a result, their answers will tell you not only if students are wrong but precisely why.

“Okay, interesting responses,” you say. “Now, turn to your neighbor and convince her that your choice was the correct one.” You wander the aisle listening for the arguments students offer. You know that when they vote again, more of them will understand the correct answer. They’ve finally gotten the hang of this peer discussion technique. It took a little time and practice, but you’re already seeing improvements in learning.

Class time is valuable, and genetics education research has shown that it’s best devoted to problems and concepts that are most difficult for students. New teaching innovations such as peer discussion and concept inventories are leading to dramatic improvements in student learning in courses where it’s been implemented effectively. The adoption of student-centered teaching in genetics courses lags behind physics, astronomy, and math, but it’s catching on thanks to educational research by some of our own colleagues.

BEGIn Helps Educators Implement Student-Centered Learning

20170928-begin-logoFor a number of years, ASHG has been implementing Building Excellence in Human Genetics (BEGIn)—an intensive two-day workshop for undergraduate, graduate, and professional school genetics faculty, which has received rave reviews from participants (93% excellent or very good). Uptake, however, has been slow because of the difficulty of carving out two days from busy research and teaching schedules. To make the workshop’s content more accessible to more faculty, we’ve split it into two parts: a set of online modules, and a more compact workshop that requires only about six hours.

Content that is more foundational, theoretical, and didactic is now available in three online modules that can be used by faculty members at their convenience. Although this is online, the content isn’t all passive. There are questions and tasks embedded within the presentations to keep faculty engaged and to model some of the techniques you should be using with students.

The workshop has been reserved for the hands-on practice necessary for a confident and successful transition from lecture-based teaching to student-centered instruction. The format is a “situated apprenticeship,” which means you will do the things you’re learning about. ASHG has been conducting the BEGIn workshops on university campuses to eliminate the need for faculty to travel. We are hoping more faculty will now be able to take advantage of this valuable program.

The BEGIn online modules are now available for viewing, and you can arrange an on-campus workshop by emailing education@ashg.org.

Michael Dougherty, PhD, is ASHG’s Director of Education. Learn more about BEGIn and other ASHG programs for genetics education online.

Filling Gaps in Genomics Education for Providers: We Need Your Ideas

Posted by: Mike Dougherty, PhD, ASHG Director of Education

For the past three years, ASHG has been developing education for non-genetics health professionals. Programs now exist to help pediatricians, OB/GYNs, oncologists, and others to integrate genomics into their clinical practice. We’re now hoping for your feedback to help develop new programs.

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Karen Hanson, Health Professional Education Programs Manager, presents a poster on ASHG’s efforts in genomics education for health professionals.

To ensure that our education is clinically useful, we work closely with medical specialists from the relevant disciplines, sometimes establishing formal collaborations with those organizations. For example, the program we released last month on cfDNA screening was produced in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. These types of collaborations insure that our educational programs are relevant, practical, and reach their target audience. They also give our partners greater exposure within the genetics community.

If you are a member of a professional society that might be interested in working with ASHG to develop clinical genomics education for that society’s members, please complete this brief survey. Thanks for your help!

Michael Dougherty, PhD, is Director of Education at ASHG. Learn more about ASHG programs for K-12 students, trainees, health professionals, and the public.

Reflecting on APHMG 2017

Posted by: Kathryn Garber, PhD, Chair of the ASHG Communications Committee

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the Association of Professors of Human and Medical Genetics (APHMG), and, as always, my head is swimming with ideas. For those not familiar with APHMG, it is a group that promotes human and medical genetics education in graduate and medical schools across North America. It’s a meeting where we spend most of our time talking about teaching and learning, but the fact that we are all geneticists means that we have a common understanding of the science we need to teach. We also discuss more practical issues of program design and oversight, particularly for medical students, residents and fellows.

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APHMG 2017 attendees take a break from presentations for a pirate ship excursion. (courtesy Dr. Garber)

The focus of this year’s meeting was adult learning. Hope Ricciotti from Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital kicked things off with some valuable hints on interacting with millennial learners, including ideas on how to structure feedback to members of the “trophy generation”, who often aren’t used to negative feedback. Kadriye Lewis from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City then put adult learning in perspective through illustrations of different learning theories and their implementation. Next, Sarah Farrell and members of her team from Apple Education demonstrated tools and resources for use in education, including eBooks and courses that can be created or used by faculty, and apps that can foster interactivity in the classroom.

The second day of the meeting had a scientific focus on big data. Mike Murray from Geisinger described their approach to return of results to participants in their population-based GenomeFIRST project. He was followed by Sarah Elsea from Baylor, who discussed the use of large scale metabolomic profiles to identify inborn errors of metabolism. Finally, Piero Rinaldo from the Mayo Clinic argued passionately that we should stop using reference cutoffs to interpret biomarkers for metabolic disease, and should replace this approach with an assessment of the likelihood that an individual’s biomarker profile is more consistent with a normal or disease profile, based on large numbers of previously tested samples.

As usual, the annual meeting also included workshops by three special interest groups (SIGs), each one focused on a different set of trainees: medical genetics residents, medical students, and clinical laboratory fellows. I attended the medical student education workshop, which this year was co-sponsored by the Association of Biochemistry Educators (ABE). This allowed us to focus on topic integration across the undergraduate medical curriculum, and we had a productive small group session in which biochemists and geneticists worked together to develop teaching cases that integrate the two subjects. Later in the day, we brainstormed the inclusion of ethics in integrated medical curricula, as well as approaches to bringing the basic sciences into the clinical curriculum.

For me – and I think for many others – the most valuable part of the APHMG meeting is getting to know people who are teaching genetics at medical schools and hospitals across the country. We share ideas, create materials together, and establish collaborative projects that continue throughout the year. One of the key products of these interactions in recent years has been the sharing of resources that can be used broadly within the SIGs, including cases, assessments, evaluations, competency frameworks, and curricula. The Genetics Education Resource Exchange houses a number of these resources focused on undergraduate medical education. If your institution is an APHMG member, you can access this valuable resource. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the group that initiated this resource and was the founding curator of the resource exchange, a job that now belongs to Andrew Sobering from St. George’s University.)

If you want to meet and learn from people who are passionate about genetics education, this is the place, and I encourage you to join this supportive and collaborative group at our meeting in Santa Fe next spring. As you can see in the picture of our pirate ship excursion, we also make time for fun. Now, I’m off to take all of the great ideas that were sparked at the meeting and work on my syllabus for next semester.

Kate Garber, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Emory University. She is involved in designing and implementing human genetics training for physician assistants, genetic counselors, and medical students. Read more about Kate’s career.