Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bringing Science out of Yale and into New Haven...

When I'm not phasing genotype data, part of my life outside the lab involves organizing talks with the Yale Science Diplomats (follow their blog here). Last year we started a Science in the News Series in order to explain some of the science behind controversial headlines, like this one. Science Diplomats are a fantastic group of grad students who, come hell or high water, are really committed to sharing a love and understanding of science with the public. Last year I participated in a talk with my friends Yixiao and Eric on Personalized Medicine focusing on genomes and disease, pharmacogenetics, and stem cells, respectively. People of all ages came out to the Leitner Observatory to learn about what a genome is, what it tells us (and doesn't tell us) and how we can use (and are using) that information to predict, diagnose, and treat disease.

One of the best things that came out of that event was having educators from local public schools in the audience ask us if we'd be willing to bring the talks into the classroom. Keerthi (who keeps a nifty blog of her own you can read here), our outreach coordinator, organized everything for us. After lots of back and forth between a number of schools and finding a time for our talk that fit into New Haven's rigidly packed curriculum, we were able to visit a local high school and talk about awesome science.

This particular high school is something of a rarity. Called the High School in the Community, "HSC" was started by teachers who were frustrated with the state of public education and decided to take teaching into the streets. They were so effective at engaging students that eventually administrators woke up and offered them some physical space (an old factory on Water Street) that has been repurposed into classrooms. Some of these rooms may have poor lighting and no running water, but that does not take away from the amazing job the teachers are doing to turn that space into a full-fledged science explosion. I was blown away by the job biology teacher Stephen Zepecki has done to make sure his classroom is teeming with life--only fitting for a biology class. The walls are lined by giant aquarium after aquarium (maintained by the students) filled with all sorts of marine and reptilian life, and there are some veritable flora and fauna in the center of that classroom (it helps that there's a sky light).

^The most biological biology classroom

There is really something to be said about a person who teaches introductory high school biology and is obviously liked by his students. Seeing the rapport this class had with their teacher made it a little intimidating to get up there and give an engaging talk on molecular biology! Yet even from the sidelines, Mr. Zepecki kept the class tuned in. For a school where 40% of the student body has special learning needs ranging from dyslexia to ADHD, you wouldn't know it from the Herculean attention these kids maintained. They're also probably the most respectful audience of high school students I've ever witnessed. It's a testament to both their teacher and their own desire to learn. We're really grateful he let us into his classroom today.

^Steve Zepecki, his class, and Eric

I won't go into the details of the talks because they're viewable on the Science in the News YouTube Channel, but I will say it was a learning experience for us presenters as well as the audience. Sometimes as scientists we fall into the perilous trap of adopting jargon and forgetting how to distill information into its most fundamental and interpretable pieces, and important messages get lost that way. Having graduate student-researchers talk science with high schoolers helps both parties; the high schoolers are exposed to something new, and researchers learn to deliver information in a way that actually conveys what they are trying to say.

A few things to remember for our next classroom visit are that even though most people have heard of DNA, cancer, and stem cells, those concepts haven't necessarily been defined to this age group. Students aren't particularly forthcoming about the limits of their current knowledge, so it's our job to ask them where they're at and if they're following us. Also, repetition is key. In retrospect, "single nucleotide polymorphism" is something that I should try to say five-times-fast before moving on to what it's used for. The other thing I'm taking away from this visit is that the Socratic method is really invaluable. There is nothing like having someone arrive at an answer to their own question when they're given the opportunity to think through it critically. Yixiao in particular was very good at this today. The class really woke up when they figured out they'd be accountable for answering their own questions and testing the assumptions on which their answers rested.

^Yixiao being awesome.

I'm really impressed with this class. In 90 minutes, we covered the human genome, single nucleotide polymorphisms, single gene disorders, polygenic disorders, risk prediction, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, pharmacogenetics, biopsies, receptors, drug targets, survival curves, cell culture, genetic reprogramming, embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells. And they took notes. I'm not advocating a crash course like this be the norm, but if all we have is 90 minutes, make each minute count. We shouldn't be so scared to talk science with our kids. They can handle it. They had some pretty insightful comments, too.

My favorite part of science isn't the benchwork or the analysis. It's sharing ideas with other people. It's making others aware of something that only seconds before was inconceivable to them. When you make someone's jaw drop, you know you've done something worthwhile.

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