DNA Day was initially instituted to commemorate the landmark April day in 1953 when James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin all published their respective research surrounding the structure of DNA and the chemistry surrounding DNA’s building blocks. In recent years, the festivities have been expanded to celebrate all things DNA and raise scientific awareness about the fascinating field of molecular biology. The editorial staff at GEN tries to do its part of increasing the knowledge of DNA by creating a video that provides a timeline of significant historical events over the past 65 years.
Even more significantly, as part of its celebration of National DNA Day, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) is trying to tap into and encourage the next generation of scientists, currently in high school, to learn about human genetics concepts and apply them to current scientific and societal issues. Over the past several years ASHG has instituted an essay contest open to students in grades 9–12 worldwide, asking students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in genetics.
ASHG received essays from more than a thousand students from 43 U.S. states and 23 countries who explored how genetics is informing, shaping, and changing our lives, after which more than 350 ASHG members evaluated the results for accuracy, creativity, and writing. Since 2006, the Society has led the contest annually and seeks to spark excitement and learning among the next generation of genetics professionals and foster greater genetic literacy among the general public.
ASHG awarded first place to Diane Zhang, a junior at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY; second place to Ilan Bocia, a senior at YULA-Boys in Los Angeles, CA; and third place to Nadia O’Hara, a freshman at Pechersk School International in Kyiv, Ukraine.
This year students shared their views on whether medical professionals, such as medical geneticists or genetic counselors, should be required for all genetic testing, or if consumers should have direct access to predictive genetic testing. Students were asked to use at least one disorder as an example to illustrate and defend their answers.
“Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is increasingly a topic of public interest and conversation, and we were interested in science students’ views on the involvement of health professionals in working through the results of such tests,” said Jannine D. Cody, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and chair of ASHG’s Information & Education Committee. “The winning essays were thoughtful and nuanced, reflecting a variety of views and a sophisticated consideration of the issues, and we were pleased to see high-quality entries from several countries around the world.”
ASHG will award monetary prizes to winning students as well as grants for genetics laboratory equipment to eligible teachers. Ms. Zhang, whose essay argued that genetic counselors should not be required for all direct-to-consumer genetic tests, using breast cancer as an example, will receive a $1000 prize. Mr. Bocian, whose essay argued that medical professionals should be required for such tests, using Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer as examples, will receive a $600 prize. Ms. O’Hara, whose essay argued that genetic counselors should be required for such tests, using Huntington’s disease as an example, will receive a $400 prize.
“Being involved in the judging process always makes me optimistic about the next generation of human genetics specialists,” concluded Dennis Drayna, Ph.D., section and laboratory chief at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, an ASHG member who has served as a judge of essay submissions since 2014. “The essays make it clear that evidence-based critical thinking is alive and well among today’s motivated and ambitious young people.”