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Photo: Dylan Buyskes, Onion Studio

GEM funds projects to explain genetics to Western New Yorkers

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published October 24, 2017

“Whether for health care, lifestyle or ancestry choices, all members of our community must be empowered to make informed decisions with respect to their use of their own genomic information.”
Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry and co-director
UB Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence

Three UB projects have received funding to create new and innovative ways to educate and engage teachers and the public in genetics.

The proposals are the first round of projects funded through the UB Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence’s (GEM) Education and Engagement Innovation Awards.

The grants aim to expand public understanding of and participation in the life sciences, a major initiative of GEM, an interdisciplinary community of UB faculty and staff dedicated to advancing research on the genome and microbiome.

With the funding, UB researchers will organize workshops, conferences and outreach programs that introduce students to genetics; improve the pipeline for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce; and foster community-based participatory research to uncover concerns among African-American women about breast cancer risk and genetic testing.

“Whether for health care, lifestyle or ancestry choices, all members of our community must be empowered to make informed decisions with respect to their use of their own genomic information,” says Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The projects include:

Introducing high schoolers to genetics through dragon breeding

Sweet Home Senior High School students will learn the basics of modern genetics by creating their own fictional dragons.

Using the GENIQUEST game software developed by the Concord Consortium and The Jackson Laboratory, students will breed dragons for desired genetic traits, such as color, wings and the ability to breathe fire.

An advanced version of the game may be developed for UB undergraduate students.

The project is led by Rachael Hageman Blair, assistant professor, and Dietrich Kuhlmann, research professor and director of undergraduate studies, both in the Department of Biostatistics, School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Revealing Breast Cancer Risk in African-American Women

Few educational materials about the genetic predisposition of breast cancer among African-American women are available, despite research that suggests there are risks unique to the population.

“Disparities exist in both risk and survival for young African-American women compared to whites, and we speculate that genetics play a role,” says Heather Ochs-Balcom, project co-investigator and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health and Health Professions.

In partnership with the Patient Voices Network and Jewels in Our Genes, UB faculty will hold focus groups to identify questions and concerns African-American women have about genetic predisposition to breast cancer, and their perception of the benefits, risks and experiences with genetic testing.

These findings will guide the development and testing of tailored educational messages on breast cancer risks in African-American communities.

The project is led by Ochs-Balcom and Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, associate professor and director of community translational research in the Department of Family Medicine, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Strengthening the STEM pipeline

Educators from across the bioinformatics and genomics disciplines will be invited to a conference focusing on improving curricula, forming connections within the field and exchanging ideas on increasing the STEM workforce.

Participants will include science and non-science SUNY faculty, members of the New York State Area Health Education Center System (NYS AHEC), science teachers and community partners in the health care and life science fields. 

The project is led by Stephen Koury, research associate professor in the Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and Shannon Carlin-Menter, adjunct professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology in the Graduate School of Education, and director of evaluation at NYS AHEC.