Campus News

Students learn the ‘magic’ behind genomics

Eighth-grader Paris Thomas shows off her genome necklace that she created during UB's fourth annual Genome Day.

Eighth-grader Paris Thomas shows off the genome necklace she created during UB's fourth annual Genome Day. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published March 9, 2018

“The best part is when the students finish and get their own little tube of DNA. They’re so excited. It’s personal — ‘this is how science affects me.’”
Terry-Ann Smith, research facilities manager
Clinical and Translational Research Center

“Oh my gosh! Look at that. It’s right here. You see it? That white stuff.”

Paris Thomas, an eighth-grader from Highgate Heights school in Buffalo, pointed out her DNA — a web-like cluster of organic material — floating in a test tube.

“It looks like little hairs,” she said, chatting excitedly with a friend.

It was Thursday, March 8, and Thomas was one of hundreds of students from Buffalo Public Schools who visited the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB for the university’s fourth annual Genome Day.

The event introduced young people to genomics by engaging them in a hands-on science project in which they spit in a cup, donned laboratory gloves and used various chemicals to extract the DNA from their own saliva.

“Everything was interesting,” Thomas said of the task. “I never did something like this before.”

Later, she and her peers got to take their genetic material home, pipetting it into a tiny vial strung onto a necklace.

Then, they were treated to a talk on “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding” by Duke University biologist Eric Spana, who used real-world genetic mechanisms to provide hypothetical explanations of how the ability to do magic is inherited. His lecture covered such topics as how wizards and witches could be born to non-magical parents, and how two magical parents could give birth to a non-magical squib.

The event showcased the best of UB. The eighth-graders got a chance to do science in the state-of-the-art Jacobs School building, and learn from volunteers that included dozens of UB students, faculty and staff.

“I think this is a great opportunity for students to learn about and understand the importance of science at a young age,” said Terry-Ann Smith, research facilities manager for the Clinical and Translational Research Center at UB, who was volunteering at Genome Day for the third time. “The best part is when the students finish and get their own little tube of DNA. They’re so excited. It’s personal — ‘this is how science affects me.’”

“Genome Day is an excellent opportunity to show the community how CBLS and the Jacobs School building engage and inspire the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals,” said lead organizer Sandra K. Small, science education manager at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences (CBLS).

Guiding the eighth-graders through the DNA-extraction activity was also rewarding for the many UB students who signed up to help.

Karstin Webber, a PhD candidate in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics, loved working with the middle schoolers. She had her group laughing for much of the time they were together, helping them feel comfortable by chatting about common experiences like owning pets, and joking with them, asking one girl, “Are you an alien?” when she couldn’t seem to isolate any DNA.

“I feel very strongly about trying to get kids interested in science early on,” Webber said. “Science involves a lot of critical thinking. It’s a skill that is really important in all aspects of life.”