Op-Ed

DNA Day teaches about science – and scientists

Visibility is a key goal of North Carolina DNA Day, a science outreach event that commemorates the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA and the completion of the human genome sequence.
Visibility is a key goal of North Carolina DNA Day, a science outreach event that commemorates the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA and the completion of the human genome sequence. TNS

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of scientists took to the streets in cities across the globe, including more than a thousand right here in Raleigh, to advocate for science.

If there’s one benefit to scientists taking the streets in large number, it is visibility. Visibility is a key goal of North Carolina DNA Day, a science outreach event that commemorates the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA and the completion of the human genome sequence.

Research shows that when you ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist, they typically sketch out a caricature of Albert Einstein or something akin to a “mad scientist” – always a man, always white, so is his lab coat, usually old, probably bad hair.

But, if you then introduce these same students to real, actual scientists, something amazing happens. Drawings of scientists suddenly feature women, a variety of skin tones and even normal fashion choices! If you take a look at photos from the science marches across the world, you’ll see exactly what students see when they meet a scientist in their classroom: Scientists are just regular people who have devoted their careers to understanding how the world works for the betterment of mankind.

For the past 11 years, the UNC School of Medicine has organized a science outreach program called North Carolina DNA Day, and I have had the fortune of overseeing this innovative program since 2010. Our program connects researchers from North Carolina’s leading research institutions with high school classrooms.

Over the next few weeks, NC DNA Day will send over 170 scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, N.C. State, UNC-Charlotte, Wake Forest and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to high school classrooms all across North Carolina – from Hiwassee Dam High School in Murphy to Ocracoke School on the Outer Banks – and 130 other schools in between.

Every April, these NC DNA Day science “ambassadors” are paired with high school science teachers for a day where they walk students through a science lesson and hands-on experiments, discuss how scientific discoveries are made and each ambassador shares their own research interests and career path. As the program has evolved, some scientists remain connected with their partner teachers throughout the year, serving as a “scientist-on-call” for teachers through regular classroom visits or Skype.

North Carolina DNA Day and similar programs across the country are essential for building bridges between the research being done in our state with the next generation of scientists in our classrooms. Just like the science march, NC DNA Day scientists represent the genders, races, ethnicities and backgrounds that are found in our public school classrooms.

Meeting a real-life scientist can spark an interest or demystify a career path that students may not have encountered or thought possible for them. We look forward to working with thousands of students over the next few weeks and many more in the years to come.

Joshua Hall is the Science, Training, and Diversity Team Leader; Director, Science Outreach; and Director, Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program for the UNC School of Medicine Office of Graduate Education.

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