Get to Know Maurice Godfrey, Geneticist and Educator

Posted By: Evelyn Mantegani, Public Education & Engagement Specialist, ASHG

Maurice Godfrey, PhD, is a member of the Genetics Engagement & Education Network and co-chair of the ASHG Public Education & Awareness Committee. In his role, Dr. Godfrey judges entries to the DNA Day Essay Contest and facilitates the ASHG High School Workshop, an activity held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting in which members bring hands-on activities to local schools. He began his career in bench science and more recently works with Native American communities by bringing lessons in health and science, including human genetics and career opportunities.

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Maurice Godfrey (center) leads students through a genetics activity. (courtesy Dr. Godfrey)

ASHG: How did you begin your involvement in public education and engagement?

Dr. Godfrey: My real involvement came when I had young children. Teachers would say, “I heard from this teacher what you did. Can you come to my school?” So, it became an avocation to do that. I had a really extraordinary experience mentoring a high school student who is now a practicing physician. He was the first person in his family to go to college, then he went to medical school, and he went to his number one choice in residency and fellowship. You provide opportunities and give people a chance to go find their way in science.

ASHG: What’s the most rewarding part of your volunteer experiences?

Dr. Godfrey: Having lived in both the bench science world and now this outreach world, you get much more immediate positive, feedback when you’re working with students and communities. When you’re doing bench research, you’re doing hundreds of experiments before one breakthrough, and that may take a long time. When you’re working with a student and see them light up because they’ve just gotten something that they didn’t know, that’s really rewarding.

ASHG: What’s the best memory you have of one of your educators when you were a student?

Dr. Godfrey: [My high school anatomy teacher] was a stickler and was very, very focused. He set a very good model of how you have to be very methodical with science. Then, I had a college professor who made us write every lab report in the same format as a journal article. I had a great genetics professor in college, too. I’m still in touch with him.

ASHG: What’s the best piece of advice for other volunteers, especially those who are just starting out?

Dr. Godfrey: Be very patient, don’t give up, don’t expect dramatic results at first, be very respectful of the communities you’re in, keep things simple, and make them fun. Don’t lecture, try to get things that can be hands-on, and make them relevant to the area.

ASHG: What’s the one thing you want the public to know about human genetics?

Dr. Godfrey: [First], It’s really important for people to know how similar we all are when it comes to our genetics. [Second], with advancing technology in genetics, there are a lot of questions that will be coming up. Where do you draw the line with making manipulations in plants so you can feed more people, versus in people so you can “design” better people? Is that where we want to go? It’s a fine line between ‘are we going to treat genetic diseases’ versus ‘are we going to “enhance” traits in people’?

Inspired by DNA Day: 2019 Essay Winner Visits a Lab

Posted By: Fuki Marie Hisama, MD, 2019 DNA Day Essay Contest Judge

This year’s DNA Day Essay Contest winner, high school junior Sophia Chen, wrote her essay on an ethical dilemma in human genetics: whether a father with Huntington’s disease should reveal his genetic diagnosis to his adult daughter.

My lab and colleagues at the University of Washington were all impressed with Sophia’s essay on the challenges of Huntington’s disease (HD), and we invited her and her science teacher, Dr. Devin Parry, to visit our lab to learn more and gain exposure to genetics research. We were thrilled to have them.

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L-R: Devin Parry, Sophia Chen, and Fuki Hisama (courtesy Dr. Hisama)

They attended a working clinical case conference, joined in a discussion of current topics in human genetics, toured several labs to see some of cutting-edge research going on here, and met many geneticists and genetic counselors, including two ASHG presidents: Mary-Claire King, PhD, 2012 President; and Peter Byers, MD, 2005 President. Tom Bird, MD, a leading neurogeneticist and expert on HD, presented Sophia with a signed copy of his book on Huntington disease entitled “Can You Help Me?”, published this year.

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Tom Bird presented Sophia with a copy of his recent book. (courtesy Dr. Hisama)

As one of the ASHG members who volunteer to judge the DNA Day essay contest, I was especially pleased to meet one of the winners of this year’s contest. Sophia has also participated in a NASA project on genes in space. The future of genetics is bright, because of young people like Sophia, and her teacher, who are passionate about science.

A longtime member of ASHG, Fuki Marie Hisama, MD, FACMG, FAAN, is Professor of Medicine (Division of Medical Genetics) and Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. 

Interested in encouraging public and student participation in genetics? Sign up for the Genetics Engagement & Education Network and add your name to the list of judges for next year’s DNA Day Essay Contest!

Celebrating DNA Day and Genetics Research with High Schoolers

Posted By: D. Olga McDaniel, MD, PhD, ASHG member

For the second time in the past three years, we celebrated the DNA Day activities in association with the School of Health Related Professions (SHRP) Research Day, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). The goal was to present the ASHG to the students and the faculty of this medical center.

High school students presented research posters for judging and discussion containing illustrations, data, and study results, on topics including potential cancer therapy, population diversity, health disparities, and molecular modeling. The sound of students’ presentations was loud and added to the excitement. The students, a majority of whom are from Murrah High School of Jackson, Mississippi, were mentored by the UMMC faculty.

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Dr. McDaniel shares her poster with students (L-R) Matthew Hairston (grade 12), Kilando Chambers (grade 11), Evan Morrisey (11), Brandon Fisher (11), Matthew Araujo (12), Asiah Clay (11), Jessie James (11), LaMari Sutton (11), Sellena Dixon (12). (courtesy Dr. McDaniel).

The students are in a program called Base-Pair, supported in part by funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Base-Pair was initiated over 25 years ago to help advance science education in the public schools of Jackson, Mississippi.

The students gathered around my poster, entitled “The Genetics Engagement in Public Education and Population Health” to discuss the genetics curriculum in their classrooms. The poster was in part adapted from Dougherty, et al. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 2011, 10:318-327.

Just in time, I was able to include the names and photos of the 2019 DNA Day Essay Contest winners in the poster. The students were excited about the DNA Day Essay Contest. Some of them are thinking about participating next year. I presented a couple of quizzes just for fun and also to test their genetics understanding, one about the sickle cell gene and disorder, and another about genome editing. The students responded enthusiastically to the quiz. I promised to discuss the role of genetics in organ transplantation next year. Overall, the event was very educational.

A longtime member of ASHG, D. Olga McDaniel has been an Emeritus Member of ASHG since 2015 and has served as a DNA Day Essay Contest judge since 2014. Interested in more ways to engage with students about genetics and genomics? Join the Genetics Engagement & Education Network, sign up to judge future essay submissions, and explore additional ideas presented at our DNA Day Engagement webinar.

DNA Day on April 25: An Opportunity to Engage

Posted By: Ann Klinck, Communications and Marketing Assistant, ASHG

National DNA Day started in 2003 to commemorate the completion of the Human Genome Project and engage communities with science. Last month, ASHG hosted the webinar “Take Initiative: DNA Day Engagement and You,” which covered how to get involved, resources, and best practices.

Listeners were joined by moderator Maurice Godfrey, Incoming Chair of ASHG’s Information & Education Committee; Carla Easter, Chief of Education and Community Involvement at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI); and Christina Vallianatos, Founder and co-Director of Michigan DNA Day.

Importance of Science Engagement

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.”

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Michigan DNA Day has grown tremendously in a short time, showing that not only is science engagement important, but people enjoy it! (courtesy Ms. Vallianatos)

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:

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.

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Michigan DNA Day’s scientists out in a high school classroom.(courtesy Ms. Valliantos)

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.

Want to get involved or find more resources? Email ASHG at dnaday@ashg.org, NHGRI at dnaday@nih.gov, or Michigan DNA Day at midnaday@gmail.com.

Submissions for the ASHG DNA Day Essay Contest are due March 8, 2019! If you’re a member of ASHG and interested in getting involved in science engagement, sign up for the Genetics Engagement & Education Network or contact education@ashg.org.

Announcing: The Genetics Engagement & Education Network

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.

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Hands-on activities using real world examples, such as this one on identifying fish species using DNA sequences collected in Atlantic Ocean, help students understand genetics and genomics concepts. (courtesy Dr. Norris)

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

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Students at Fort Hill High School in Allegheny County, MD, participate in an outreach activity. (courtesy Dr. Norris)

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).

Inside AJHG: A Chat with Elizabeth Wright

Posted By: Sara Cullinan, PhD, Deputy Editor, AJHG

Each month, the editors of The American Journal of Human Genetics interview an author of a recently published paper. This month we check in with Elizabeth Wright to discuss her paper ‘Practical and ethical considerations of using the results of personalized DNA ancestry tests with middle-school-aged learners’.

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Elizabeth Wright (photo courtesy Dr. Wright)

AJHG: What prompted you to start working on this project?

Elizabeth: I could give you a long answer about being a former middle school science teacher and what drove me to get a PhD in Science Education, but simply put, I am committed to finding ways for each and every student to see themselves connected to science and each other, and supporting teachers in that work.

AJHG: What about this paper/project most excites you?

Elizabeth: I am equally thrilled and cautious about having adolescents use their own personal DNA to explore who they are genetically, genealogically/socioculturally, and intentionally. We are not all of one thing and none of another. We can use what we know about pieces of ourselves to imagine something new and amazing. We can reveal these pieces of ourselves to our families and friends and see how we are connected to each other and the grander tree of life.

AJHG: Thinking about the bigger picture, what implications do you see from this work for the larger human genetics community?

Elizabeth: In the previous question I mentioned a bit about what thrills me. I am cautious because the privacy issues surrounding over-the-counter, direct-to-consumer DNA testing are monumental, and ever-shifting. It is both exciting and nerve-wrecking to ask, and watch, young scholars to embark on this intellectual journey. The engagement and electricity in the classroom when young scientists encounter themselves in new and unique ways keeps me going.

AJHG: What advice do you have for trainees/young scientists?

Elizabeth: I think the most important thing I would say is: you belong here. You belong in science. Your voice, your experiences, your viewpoint are all incredibly important. If you feel left out or unwelcome, create your own community and persevere because you are going to change things.

AJHG: And for fun, tell us something about your life outside of the lab.

Elizabeth: I’m a Red Sox season ticket holder and I love the game of baseball. I’ve been to baseball games in 27 different MLB parks, and 3 AAA baseball parks. Also, I love Orangetheory Fitness! Base-Push-All Out, that’s good advice.

Elizabeth Wright, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Jablonski laboratory at Pennsylvania State University.

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!