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.

Be Well to Do Well

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

Earlier this month, ASHG hosted a webinar titled Resilience and Wellness, which focused on strategies to maintain your mental wellness in the scientific workplace and improve your resilience to the challenges and setbacks we all face.

Sharon Milgram, PhD, Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reminded webinar listeners that to function at the highest capability, you must take your own well-being into consideration.

Developing Resilience

“Those who are resilient prepare to be resilient,” said Dr. Milgram. Developed through education, self-reflection, and practice, resilience can help a person navigate through adversity constructively. Here’s how:

  • People: Find people you can trust, who will give you energy when you feel stuck, and go to them to find compassion, a listening ear, or just companionship.
  • Process: Figure out what wellness practice or resources you can focus on that will help you in that moment.
  • Prepare: You cannot try to discover these things in a moment of crisis; you have to set yourself up for success.

Dr. Milgram also provided this helpful tool to identify characteristics of a resilient person.

Handling Our Inner Critic

To improve the way you view difficult situations or setbacks, analyze your self-talk. Are the stories you tell yourself harsher than they need to be? Consider whether you would say the things you tell yourself to a friend. Are you seeing the broader picture?

Destroying Cognitive Distortions

Dr. Milgram described cognitive distortions or automatic negative thoughts as “Characteristic ways that our mind convinces us of something that is really not true to reinforce negative thinking or emotions.” Some examples are:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Your performance is either perfect or a complete failure.
  • Catastrophizing: You exaggerate the implications of a setback or mistake.
  • Mind reading: You make assumptions about what someone else is thinking.

Here’s how to tame them:

  • Journal to identify your most common negative thoughts.
  • Talk to mentors and peers.
  • Use your science voice to question them: Where is the evidence that this is the worst thing to ever happen in my life?
  • Be open to counseling when it’s unmanageable.

Never Feel Like an Imposter

Imposter fear is a type of cognitive distortion, qualified as “The feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Dr. Milgram pointed out that “If you are working towards a PhD in the sciences, if you are a postdoc, if you have been working as an undergraduate in a high-knowledge research environment, there is much evidence of high achievement already, though we often find ourselves feeling like fakes and phonies.”

Imposter fears include attributing success to luck or discounting your successes. You’re not alone! 70+% of individuals experience imposter fears at some point in their educational and work journey. Fight that feeling by practicing accepting praise and reminding yourself that impostor fears happen to everyone.

To Do Well, We Have to Be Well

Dr. Milgram provided a model of holistic self-care outlining four quadrants of wellness.

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In her shared slide deck, you can find a wellness assessment for each quadrant. While everyone defines these quadrants differently, each needs to be fulfilled to feel well. Dr. Milgram reminded us we can’t fix everything at once, and to take time to work on one area instead of trying to change too many habits too quickly.

Watch the full webinar, or check out our Twitter account to see live engagement from listeners!

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.

ASHG Joining Forces with Groups across Broad Science and Medicine Community

Posted By: Mona Miller, ASHG Executive Director

ASHG is increasing our direct national and international collaboration to achieve results for the human genetics and genomics community. While we are already pursuing strategic action with several genetics and genomic partners on priorities from the recent ASHG member survey, we also are working to identify key strategic partnerships across the wide spectrum of science and medicine. This week, we are especially pleased to announce our participation with some crucial new allies. In months to come, continue to check out new partnerships and collaborations as we grow our work to serve you and the field.

ASHG has joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as an affiliate. At a time when fact and evidence face challenges on a global scale, the entire community is working to advance evidence-based information. We are strengthened and more united through AAAS, which is building and launching new advocacy strategies for science at the national and local levels. They also serve as key convener for scientific societies across the physical and life sciences and helped spark a national collaboration to combat sexual harassment in STEMM. Importantly, they are also enhancing their work to arm journalists with accurate information about emerging science, including human genetics, and last month’s AAAS Annual Meeting showcased multiple promising studies and challenging questions in our field. We are excited to explore how we can connect into their broader efforts, partner with their global voice, and use resources to help our members communicate and advocate for the tremendous progress and promise of science. Keep an eye out for more information and our recent Q&A with AAAS CEO Rush Holt.

ASHG has joined the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM. The ASHG Board of Directors is committed to creating a welcoming and safe community within our human genetics and genomics field, and we were very pleased to introduce our new ASHG Annual Meeting Code of Conduct last year to clearly state our expectations for behavior within our events. Yet we know these issues are pervasive and deep seated and will need sustained attention across fields and disciplines. Building on a crucial recent report from the National Academies, the Consortium will unite societies on these issues and help all of us adopt and promote policies and procedures that foster diverse, inclusive, and equitable academic and medical environments. ASHG took part in early dialogue as the consortium was forming last fall, and the group now includes nearly 60 societies, led by groups that include AAAS, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Geophysical Union.

We look forward to partnering with these new allies as we work to advance the field of human genetics and genomics!

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).

AAAS 2019: Science Transcending Boundaries

Posted by: Eve Granatosky, PhD, 2018-19 Genetics & Public Policy Fellow

Earlier this month, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held right here in Washington, DC. Themed ‘Science Transcending Boundaries,’ the program featured sessions on how science can bring together people, ideas, and solutions from different disciplines and sectors to address the world’s most pressing problems. This conference was very different from others I’ve attended in the past, which have focused on one specific scientific area. The AAAS Meeting also had a strong focus on science policy and communication, and I was excited to attend those sessions as well as explore scientific talks in different areas.

A common theme across the policy and communication sessions was the importance of understanding your audience – what are their priorities, and what information is valuable and relevant to them? At one session, panelists discussed the many legitimate influences on policy and policymakers, and how scientific evidence is usually only one factor that contributes to decision making. In another, panelists spoke about the challenges of getting usable scientific information to policymakers, and described the important role of boundary organizations that span the science-policy interface in facilitating effective two-way communication. Later on in the conference, panelists discussed how science is frequently used strategically rather than substantively in policy (i.e. to support an existing position rather than develop that position).

The final session of the conference brought many of these ideas together. In “Science Activation: How Do We Get Our Science Used by Those in Power?”, seismologist Lucy Jones reflected on her experience in successfully working with local government and private industry in Los Angeles to better prepare the city for future earthquakes. Her tips and lessons included:

  • Scientists and non-scientists have different communication styles, and scientists’ emphasis on uncertainty can hinder effective communication.
  • Use scientific information to reduce uncertainty whenever possible, by focusing on describing future scenarios based on scientific consensus rather than the probabilities of potential outcomes.
  • Provide policymakers with actionable information to empower them to make decisions, and maintain relationships with stakeholders throughout the process.
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At the final session of the AAAS Annual Meeting, Lucy Jones, PhD, and AAAS President Margaret Hamburg, MD, discussed how human stories help engage the public on scientific issues.

Another policy-related highlight of the meeting was an appearance by Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, the newly confirmed head of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. In his first public speech since assuming this position, he highlighted the progress made in science and technology during the Trump administration, including advances in artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, 5G networks, and manufacturing. He also emphasized the role of the private sector in supporting basic research, and the value of assessing all work being done in our country’s research ecosystem, including research in the academic, industrial, nonprofit, and federal agency sectors. By leveraging the strengths of each sector to build new public-private partnerships, he hopes to usher in a “second bold era” of science in the United States. Finally, Dr. Droegemeier acknowledged the need to create safe, welcoming, and accommodating environments for research, as well as to reduce administrative burden for scientists.

The need to improve the climate within science was also addressed at a session entitled “Societies Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEMM Fields,” which formally introduced the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM. This group of almost 60 scientific societies (including ASHG!) plans to develop resources and guidance to address sexual and gender harassment in all its forms, in both society-organized operations like conferences and broadly within the societies’ scientific fields.

Between all of this excellent policy programming, I attended some great scientific sessions as well, on topics ranging from vaccine development to space exploration. Genetics was best represented at a session entitled “Race, Sex, and Genes: Shaping Bodies, Shifting Boundaries, Challenging Myths,” which delved into how social and biological factors intertwine to contribute to health disparities. Panelists discussed how human genetic variation does exist, but is distributed more geographically and as a gradient than on the strict racial lines dictated by society. They also discussed the complexities of consumer genetic tests in relation to group identity, saying that these tests can be valuable for marginalized people looking to reconnect to their ancestral communities, but should not be used to claim group membership.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at AAAS 2019! I would highly recommend future editions of this conference for anyone who is interested in science policy and communication, or who is interested in expanding their scientific horizons and learning about new topics.

Eve Granatosky, PhD, is the 2018-19 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. She is currently in her second rotation in the United States Congress, working on health and education issues for Senator Richard Blumenthal. Interested in this fellowship? Applications will open in late February.