LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas celebrated its first official Kansas DNA Day last month. Lynn Villafuerte and Sonia Hall, with support from the Office of Diversity in Science Training, organized the events in collaboration with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The design and implementation of this institutional level outreach program aims to accomplish three primary goals:
1. Connect scientists with high school students to link high school biology course content to real-life research applications.
2. Engage junior scientists in outreach during their training to strengthen their ability to communicate the importance of their research to a diverse audience.
3. Provide an opportunity for students to interact with scientists that come from similar backgrounds and experiences.
In its inaugural year, 52 ambassadors visited 14 high schools. The ambassador teams of 2-5 junior scientists consisted of 19 undergraduates, seven post-baccalaureates, 20 graduate students, seven postdoctoral researchers, two staff and one faculty member from six different departments that spanned both the KU-Lawrence and KU-Med campuses. Joshua Hall from UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to KU to assist in ambassador training.
The ambassadors engaged high school students with activities that included DNA isolation and an exploration of the underlying mechanisms that regulate why patients respond differently to the same medications.
“The experience reinforced the idea that understanding the basics of science allows us to begin to understand complex issues and pursue a solution," said Hanna Hall, a junior at Lawrence High School, one of the participating schools. Her teacher Ann Foster said that she participated in the event because she “believes it is important for students to look outside of the classroom for experiences that will enhance and motivate them.”
Ambassador Matthew Medina, a PREP student in geology, said, "What’s great about Kansas DNA Day is exposing students from rural communities and disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have considered a career in science to the world of science and research."
Several DNA Day ambassadors returned to their alma maters, and teachers were excited to specifically request ambassadors that were previously students in their classes. In total, the ambassadors interacted with more than 1,080 students in 48 different classrooms.
“Being one of the very first DNA Day ambassadors to share my love of biology with my old high school is an experience I’ll always remember," said Luke Wenger, a doctoral aspirant in molecular biosciences. "All of the students seemed really interested and curious, and catching up with my old biology teacher made the entire experience incredibly meaningful to me.”
The implementation of an institution wide outreach program for graduate STEM trainees creates a seamless opportunity for newly entering students to become actively engaged in science communication and community outreach.
"Outreach is an incredibly important facet of professional development for early career scientists. Involvement in outreach programs allows for the development of science communication skills," said Beth Ruedi, director of education and professional development for the Genetics Society of America.
The Kansas DNA Day program was designed with the understanding that participation in a well-organized outreach program will increase the competitiveness of trainees when applying for prestigious fellowships, including the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that heavily weighs the student’s ability to integrate broader insights into their graduate work. Having a well-organized and active outreach program at KU will also make graduate and undergraduate programs more attractive to prospective students.
Ambassador Haifa Alhadyian, master's degree student in molecular biosciences, chose to participate in DNA day to assess her teaching and science communication skills as well as engage with colleagues from other departments.
“I would love to launch DNA Day in my country, Saudi Arabia," she said.
The Kansas DNA Day events will take place annually across the state of Kansas. Currently, 100 percent of the ambassador scientists have committed to participating again next year, and many schools have started contacting the Kansas DNA Day program inquiring about next year’s events and how they can participate. The 2015 participating high schools were Basehor Linwood High School, Hiawatha High School, Highland Park High School, J.C. Harmon High School, Lawrence High School, Maize South High School, Olathe Northwest High School, Olathe South High School, Santa Fe Trail High School, Shawnee Heights High School, Shawnee Mission North High School, SOAR Alternative School, West Franklin High School and Wyandotte High School.
In 2016, Kansas DNA Day will take place April 21st. More information regarding involvement with the Kansas DNA Day outreach program is available online.