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Bringing student-driven genetics education to the university campus

By: Franjo Ivankovic
Biology and Anthropology, University of Florida

According to the survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University this January, as many as 80.44% of respondents want mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.1 This statistic, unfortunately, seems to reflect the general population’s lack of familiarity with biology and genetics. This level of misinformation is quite alarming, given that the discipline of genetics is rooted in so many health sciences and other industries. Genetically engineered crops, for example, have been proven safe by continuous research. Even so, resistance towards them is at an all time high.  This is a significant problem, as GM crops and their development is probably crucial for sustaining the world’s increasing food demands. With the advancement of various molecular methods such as CRISPR-Cas9 and TALENs, we can now even edit the germ-line genomes. The possibilities that come out of these new technologies are immeasurable, but also fear-inducing.

Franjo IvankovicThis vast gap between the opinion of the scientific community and the general population was one of the main motivators for my friend Nina Jovic and I to start the Genetics Club at University of Florida. Genetics Club2 seeks to promote information and knowledge in fields such as genetics, epigenetics, evolution and more, both on the university campus and beyond. Another value we hold close to our hearts is education and inclusion. Through socially- and academically-oriented activities, Genetics Club hopes to spread passion for the numerous disciplines in this field.

This year, on April 25th, we commemorate the completion of the Human Genome Project and the discovery of DNA’s double helix.3 On and around this date, communities around the nation engage in different activities to learn, teach, and discover more about genetics and genomics. Starting this year, University of Florida will be joining this more than decade-long tradition. Together with the UF Genetics Institute4, Genetics Club is working hard to develop plans for the genetics-related events that will take place on our campus this April. Our goal is to engage the campus community with the science of genetics and promote the careers in this field to our large student population.

Part of our effort also includes the Mini DNA Lab. This “lab” will be a mobile establishment that will be used to demonstrate and explain the most common laboratory methods employed in molecular biology and genetics. It has been set up thanks to the  generosity of Dr. Connie Mulligan. Given its educational aspect, our Mini DNA Lab is sponsored through the outreach component of her NSF-funded “Genetic ancestry, race and health disparities: A biocultural approach” project.5 This project investigates genetic, biological, psycho-social, and socio-cultural data to create a comprehensive picture of blood pressure variation in African Americans living in Tallahassee, FL. We are currently working on gathering all the materials, as well as brainstorming ideas for simplified mini-experiments that are, to some extent, representative of techniques used in the actual genetics research.

But we don’t want to stop with the DNA Day. Genetics Club, starting next fall, plans to get in touch with the high schools in Gainesville, FL, and bring the Mini DNA Lab to young students and aspiring scientists. We also plan to involve the faculty of University of Florida, and bring them in to present their research and do guest lectures for the students. Our goal is to start and maintain the dialogue between the scientific community and the general public in order to reduce this gap.

Genetics is such an amazing field of science. The more questions we answer, the more we can ask. It wasn’t long time ago that we unfolded the principles of epigenetic control of gene expression, and we can already see its vast application. Genetics is present almost everywhere: medicine and pharmacy, forensics, agriculture, and even art.6 This, consequently, calls for increased efforts to inform the public about the progress and what does it mean in the practical and laic terms, whether through seminars and classes, or demos and simulations.

Franjo Ivankovic is an international student from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is studying integrative biology and bioanthropology at the University of Florida. He is also a president and founder of the Genetics Club, and is involved with research in epigenetics and health. More information about him and his studies can be found at http://www.franjoivankovic.com/

1 http://agecon.okstate.edu/faculty/publications/4975.pdf

2http://www.geneticsclub.com

3http://www.genome.gov/10506367

4http://ufgi.ufl.edu

5 http://users.clas.ufl.edu/cmulligan/Webpage/Research.html

6 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/creepy-or-cool-portraits-derived-from-the-dna-in-hair-and-gum-found-in-public-places-50266864

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