2012 Panel Discussion - Questions and Answers


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How should genetics and genomics be taught in the classroom?  K-12?  College?

I am no authority on K-12 teaching.  At our panel discussion, Natalie Angier said that all students should just have the experience of purifying DNA from a biological source by the end of primary school—just to see that it is a gooey mess.  (As an aside, kiwi fruit is a favorite DNA source in classroom demonstrations; extraction recipes that require only grocery-store ingredients are readily available on the web.)  I agree with Natalie’s point that part of what we need is simply to emphasize increased, hands-on familiarity with DNA.  I once did this demonstration in front of a few hundred elementary-school students while playing the role of the Harry Potter character Professor Snape.  Snape taught the potions class at Hogwarts.  I combined the demonstration with showing a few slides of patterns we see in everyday life:  for example, a rainbow, a quilt, and an orchid.  These examples cover the sources of patterns in the natural world:  such patterns arise because of the effects of physical laws that act everywhere all the time, human designs, and the evolved processes of biological development as guided by an organism’s genome.  Did students learn anything from all this?  Hard to say, but there was a gasp throughout the audience when I identified myself as Professor Snape.

Davis High School in Yakima once invited me to give an introductory talk for a theme day focused on DNA.  The school devotes a day or two each year to school-wide engagement of a big theme:  race, the Vietnam War, aging, DNA, and many other examples.  For the DNA day, most of the visitors came from the community.  A genetic counselor from the local hospital talked about her work.  A police detective discussed experience in Yakima with DNA forensics.  A biologist from the Yakima Nation talked about his use of genetic testing to gauge the health of salmon runs on tribal land.

At a more theoretical level, there are many opportunities.  We should develop DNA-sequencing methods that are cheap and simple enough to implement in high-school laboratories and for science-fair projects.  Maureen Munn, who still works in educational outreach in the Genome Sciences Department, developed a program of this type in Washington State in the early 1990’s:  much less cumbersome technology would be available now.  Even the most basic analysis of DNA-sequencing data would introduce students to the use of huge, reference data bases and the importance of computer algorithms in data-processing.  Most fundamentally, the teaching of biology at all levels should put more emphasis on biological information.  The parallels and differences between technological uses of digital information and the role of this information in all life forms should capture the interest of today’s students.

To Bruce Alberts:
We do not have an informed electorate regarding science and other issues.  You have been pro-active in introducing principles of science (“What is The Evidence?”) at the earliest levels of elementary school.  What progress has been made towards this goal?

Bruce’s answer to this question at the panel discussion should be a wake-up call for all concerned citizens.  He has put enormous energy into this area over a period of decades, as a Professor at UCSF, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Science.  He basically said that whatever progress may have been made is slipping away.  The whole system is heading in the wrong direction.  The current obsession is with basic, often increasingly obsolescent, skills and acquisition of facts—an inevitable corollary to the ubiquitous emphasis on standardized testing.  Students do need to acquire some basic skills and know something about the world without always relying on a Google Search.  However, they also need to see the excitement and sheer wonder of the world.  Skills and facts are just tools with which we should constantly try to extend our tenuous knowledge of the world.

How could the educational system better prepare students for careers in genome sciences?

Opinions on this point would surely differ even amongst genome scientists.  I was trained as a chemist and learned all my biology—including my genetics and genomics—on the job.  The genome sciences were created by immigrants from other fields.  New fields of research can only be created in this way.  We should be cautious about developing specialty programs in the genome sciences.  The key to ongoing vitality will be to avoid building barriers (jargon, social networks, academic-pedigree consciousness, and so forth) to in-migration from other fields.

Bruce:  Do you think an understanding of the history of scientific development would be helpful to graduate students?

I cannot speak for Bruce, but this question addresses a major cause of mine, as well.  I think it is urgent that we broaden the education of science students, particularly at the graduate level.  What we do now puts a disproportionate emphasis on specialized knowledge.  I have two main arguments for a broader approach.  First, the way science plays out in the real world is constrained by an intricate web of prejudice, belief systems, political practices, and sociological realities.  I addressed this issue briefly in response to a much earlier question about GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms in agriculture), but comments similar to those I made there apply broadly.  Scientific leaders of the future will increasingly be excellent scientists who also have a feel for the social and intellectual context of science.  I am astonished by the intellectual innocence of many graduate students, whose education has been so dominated by an implicit, naïve positivism, that they are unable to engage people with other perspectives.  A simple example of the consequences of this narrowness is the characteristically poor performance of scientists who actually debate creationists or advocates of “intelligent design.”

Another argument for exposing students to the history and philosophy of science is that it will make them better scientists.  Presupposing an appropriate level of training, talent, and hard work, there are three ways that scientists can become highly successful.  One path basically involves luck—the scientist is at the right place at the right time to make an important discovery, typically one that someone else would have made anyway within days, weeks, or months.  This process is a zero-sum game for science as a whole and is largely impervious to educational reforms.  A second path is simply to be smarter in designing key experiments or more insightful in analyzing the results than one’s competitors.  I have known scientists who consistently fit this model, but they are rare and extremely difficult to emulate.  The final approach, which I think accounts for most examples of highly successful careers, involves an ability to step back from the fray and recognize new opportunities that break with conventional scientific practice.  I think a broader education can help cultivate this skill.