DNA DAY 2019 Sending Scientists back to school

By: Micayla Kinder

Each year April 25 marks National DNA Day, which commemorates the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and marks the discovery of DNA's double helix in 1953. The UF Genetics Institute celebrated National DNA Day last month by sending young scientists to different schools around the state to talk about DNA and engage with students in innovative workshops.

The goal of National DNA Day is to offer students, teachers and the public an opportunity to learn about and celebrate the latest advances in genomic research and explore how those advances impact their lives. Dr. Peter DiGennaro, an assistant professor in molecular plant nematology, orchestrates DNA Day at UF and helped establish the program here.

“I was first introduced to DNA Day during my time as a graduate student in North Carolina,” DiGennaro said. “As an ambassador in this program, I was thrilled to see the level of university and high school engagement. This program helped solidify my passion for outreach and focused my teaching philosophies.”

Inspired by the need to reach rural high schools in Florida, DiGennaro spearheaded the program and each year connects ambassadors with public schools to help inspire and inform today’s youth. Student and postdoc ambassadors are sent out from UF to schools throughout the state participating in DNA Day.

“One of the main goals of UF DNA Day is to nurture a desire for service and outreach in our young scientist ambassadors,” DiGenarro said. “This helps build relationships between UF and public classrooms that can illuminate new paths for high school students to get engaged in the sciences.”

Post Doc researcher Dr. Churamani Khanal was one of the ambassadors to participate in DNA Day this year.

“I routinely extract DNA from plant parasitic nematodes to identify them at species level, and as a scientist who has been working to protect agricultural crops from plant parasitic nematodes, I wanted to inspire high school students about scientific research and its importance,” Khanal said. “I thought it would be really interesting to show students how DNA is extracted and how the information from extracted DNA is used in forensics.”

Khanal said the experience was very rewarding and that he loved getting to introduce these young students to the many fascinating aspects of DNA.

“The students told us they had never extracted DNA before and that this was the first time they saw their own DNA,” Khanal said. “They were very excited to see DNA extracted from their saliva using the DNA extraction kits we provided.

Ambassadors teach various DNA modules in the classroom, including some on DNA repair and forensics.

PhD student Gurleen Kaur volunteered to be an ambassador for the second time and she explained why she believes outreach events like DNA Day are so important.

“I think there is a gap between what researchers do and the public and we have to work from the base, which is today’s young people, to fill in the gap,” Kaur said. “Researchers don’t focus on outreach enough and programs like DNA Day are helping change that.”

Yuan Hong, an ambassador who is a third year student in the UF Genetics & Genomics program, emphasized that DNA Day could even inspire young people to pursue a career in science.

“I love participating in outreach events that are meaningful, where we can interact with young people,” Hong said. “By having young scientists who work at a university physically go and interact with the students, we’re able to show them that scientists are normal people. We talk to them like peers and this helps them be able to envision themselves as scientists.”

This outreach event continues to positively impact ambassadors, teachers and students and Dr. DiGennaro believes the program will continue to grow as more people learn about it.

“My hope is that DNA Day continues to grow, reaching more students and enabling more junior scientists to recognize the benefits of outreach,” DiGennaro said. “I would like to see a coalition of Florida universities join in this, and similar missions, to support our local schools, teachers and empower young minds to see new.”

For more information about UF DNA Day visit dna.ufgi.ufl.edu.

Ambassadors from the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC-UF) with the base pairs used for DNA repair activity.

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