Through my demonstrating I’ve got to know a lot more people within the department of genetics, both PhD students and academics, and this means that I come across more opportunities. Working on BS1005 and then BS1008 (blog post coming your way shortly) with Dr Cas Kramer I learnt that he is part of GENIE, GENIE is Leicester’s Genetics Education Networking for Innovation & Excellence facility, but what does that actually mean? Well, GENIE is a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) based within the Department of Genetics. So many acronyms already! There are a number of CETL’s across the country and they originally came about in 2005 when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) offered funding to reward high quality teaching in Universities. Undergraduate students might know the MSB115 teaching lab, did you know that was refurbished by GENIE to give you the best possible facilities?
GENIE aims to continuously improve the teaching students at the university receive, however it’s not confined to University of Leicester students. As part of its outreach programme GENIE organises public engagement lectures that are free for anyone to attend and aim to inform non-scientists in an interesting way. In addition, GENIE does outreach work with school children, hopefully engaging them in science and giving them aspirations for the future. The activities are aimed at a wide range of school children (aged 4-19) and GENIE often requires a great number of student and staff volunteers to help run the sessions – so this is where I got involved.
Last week we had 256 students (mostly year 6, so aged 10-11) across 3 days and I was on hand in 4 of the sessions to help guide the students through the activities set out for them. The programme was run jointly with the Archaeology department and had a Richard III theme. Dressed in my Richard III T-shirt we went through how to extract DNA from a banana, how to match up DNA sequences from related individuals and how to draw family trees. The sessions were held in the GENIE outreach labs in the MSB (Medical Sciences/Maurice Shock Building) and for the genetics side of the programme the students wore lab coats just like we do when working in the lab. Their first task was DNA extraction from a banana, they followed a simple protocol (with help from us, as mashing up bananas can get very overexciting!) that resulted in precipitating DNA that they could actually see. I think this was probably the most exciting part for them, a real science experiment with something tangible to see at the end. We used 100% cold ethanol in the process and I had several kids ask me where they could buy this so they could try at home with other fruits! Their enthusiasm was great but I had to gently let them down because 1. they aren’t going to be buying 100% ethanol (even if purely for scientific purposes) and 2. while they might like apples more than bananas apples are much harder to mush up.
Once we had successfully extracted our banana DNA we moved onto matching DNA sequences, using the same technique Dr Turi King used to match Richard the III to a known descendant of his mother. Small overlapping pieces of DNA (like those you might get from a skeleton) had to be mapped onto a continuous stretch of DNA. Finally we had a go at drawing family trees, firstly with Richard III’s immediate family and then with the students own families.
Each session was an hour long, with 2 running back to back and I really loved doing them! I was really surprised and impressed with some of the questions they asked me, fingers crossed we have a few budding geneticists in those groups who have been inspired for the future. I’m now officially on the list of “regular helpers” so I’ll hopefully get to do some more of this work when the next sessions are run. If you come to the University of Leicester there are so many opportunities to get involved with projects such as those run by GENIE, my advice is always say yes if you’re asked to help! Even if you try something and decide it isn’t for you now you know. Outreach work like this offers you a great chance to develop extra skills and you might even discover something you really love doing.
Similar sessions have been run in the past, so for more information have a look here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/news/blog/2013/june/richard-of-york-gave-bananas-in-vain