NC DNA Day Continues Growth

By Jamie Williams,

It took a little prodding, but on a recent Friday morning, a class of biology students at Durham’s Hillside High School began their class period spitting into small plastic vials. Then, under the guidance of Genetics and Molecular Biology PhD student at the UNC School of Medicine, Maren Cannon, the students added soap, salt and alcohol, and swirled the mixture together. Cannon passed out small wooden sticks, which the students dipped into their vials, extracting slimy, mucous-like strands.

“That’s your DNA,” Cannon announced, shouting over the students’ reactions – which ran the gamut from wide-eyed wonder to slightly grossed out.

Cannon, who spends most of her time studying genetic variants in UNC’s Karen Mohlke lab, was at Hillside as a NC DNA Day science ambassador. Now in its ninth year, NC DNA Day is a state-wide collaboration between North Carolina’s top research universities and high school science teachers.

The program sent roughly 160 science ambassadors – mostly graduate students and post-docs – to high schools throughout the state on and around April 24. Of those, 100 represented UNC, with the rest coming from Duke, NC State, NIEHS, East Carolina, Wake Forest and UNC-Charlotte.

For Joshua Hall, PhD, director of UNC PREP and Science Outreach, and organizer of NC DNA Day, the aim of the day is to both show students the ways that science is applicable to their everyday lives and help to demystify the path that leads to a career in science.

“A lot of high school students have never met a scientist and are probably expecting Einstein to walk through their classroom door,” said Hall. “We have great diversity among our ambassadors and have seen the impact of students meeting scientists who are close to their age, look like them and talk like them.”

The ambassadors teach from one of four established modules, including genomics and inheritance, personalized medicine, forensics and immunology. The modules are developed by graduate students and are tweaked each year based on feedback from ambassadors and classroom teachers.

Cannon taught from the genomics and inheritance module.

“It was great to see the students get really excited about what I was teaching,” Cannon said. “I think it’s important that they get an understanding and appreciation for genetics and how it truly connects to who they are.”

Cannon visited the class of Hillside biology teacher Stephanie Joyner who was thankful her students were exposed to the possibilities afforded in science.

“It is always good for the students to interact with someone who is an expert in their field. It provides a great example for them and gives them something to aspire to,” Joyner said. “I’m so glad UNC is reaching back into the community like this.”

The ambassadors are also encouraged to speak about their personal experiences. Cannon took questions from the students and explained her passion for genetics, how she got into science and what she does in the lab on a day-to-day basis.

DNA Day’s reach is growing. The program expanded past North Carolina for the first time this year with the launch of Kansas DNA Day.

While attending a national meeting for PREP program administrators, Hall discussed DNA Day with his counterpart from the University of Kansas, Lynn Villafuerte, who became interested in replicating the program in the Sunflower State.

Hall traveled to Kansas to help train their ambassadors, explaining both the module content and what they could expect to encounter in the classroom.

“It was just so great for our ambassadors to get the perspective that comes from someone who has been doing this for many years,” Villafuerte said.

“The day went great,” said Villafuerte. “We were so pleased, but we couldn’t have done it without Josh and everyone with North Carolina DNA Day.”The inaugural Kansas DNA Day was a success.

According to Hall, building connections both locally and throughout the country is vital to the continuing evolution and growth of the program.

Locally, Hall said that the DNA Day 5K is a source of funding for the program and also helps raise its profile. This year’s race took place during the North Carolina Science Festival, where DNA Day also had a presence.

Last year, DNA Day received a $2,500 grant from the American Association of Medical Colleges. That money, Hall said, helped launch DNA Day CONNECT, which made eleven ambassadors available to teachers throughout the school year.

“Basically, we wanted to build deeper connections with teachers. So, the ambassadors participating in DNA Day CONNECT are available year round and can Skype into classes to talk to students,” Hall said.

He hopes to continue expanding DNA Day CONNECT.

Hall also envisions the program continuing to expand into other states, a vision Villafuerte endorses.

“Josh and everyone in North Carolina started something great and we just want to do whatever we can to help it grow,” Villafuerte said.

In addition to the grant from the AAMC, NC DNA Day receives funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Triangle Community Foundation, and UNC School of Medicine.

“We have an incredibly cost-effective program that is easily scalable,” Hall said, pointing out that the total annual cost for the program is between five and six thousand dollars.

And, he adds, if one student is inspired to a career in science, that small investment could pay off many times over.