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Vol. LVII, No. 10
May 20, 2005

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Visiting Daughters, Sons Have 'Fun with DNA' on Take Your Kids to Work Day

To say that science is hard is an understatement. But it can also be fun, especially when scientists get to show children what they do at NIH. In the debut of a new "mini-curriculum," researchers from the National Human Genome Research Institute and children of NIH staff had "Fun with DNA" during Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day on Apr. 28.

Carol Haft (l), NIDDK employee, helps her daughter, Lara, extract the strawberry DNA from a test tube. Marie Conrad (l) of the Clinical Center’s department of laboratory medicine gives demonstration to a gowned cadre of children.

The Human Genome Project and genetics appear to be very popular topics among NIH'ers because parents from many institutes jumped at the chance to sign their children up for "Fun with DNA." Like tickets to a U2 or Rolling Stones concert, the 45 allocated spots were snapped up within 12 minutes after the web registration site opened. In the end, a total of 48 students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, attended the three hour-long sessions.

Children are intent on a demonstration
of phlebotomy.
Valeria Maduro of the Genome Technology Branch, NHGRI, engages a roomful of youngsters.

Taking on the role of teacher for a day, Jackie Idol, a biologist in NHGRI's Genome Technology Branch, explained to her young audience what the Human Genome Project was all about and why scientists study DNA. She also shared many interesting facts about DNA, such as that a human has 23 pairs of chromosomes while a chicken has 39.

Master Fire Fighter Charles Weaver welcomes a youngster to an engine at the NIH Fire Department. Dr. Matthew Starost (r) of ORS demonstrates lung function in both health and disease.

Using a conference room in Bldg. 50 as a makeshift laboratory, Idol led the children through hands-on activities that taught them the basic genetic concepts that scientists employ every day in NIH laboratories. The activities included purifying DNA from a strawberry, building a model of DNA out of gumdrops and licorice twists and decoding gene sequences to spell out the hidden phrase "genes are in all cells."

Although other NHGRI researchers and some parents were there to lend a hand, the children quickly took to the activities without much assistance. "I was impressed with the ability of the kids to 'get it'," says Idol. "They may not understand the whole picture, but at least we introduced them to the fun of science and the 'wow' feeling that you get when something cool happens unexpectedly."

Kids wobble through an obstacle course, hindered by goggles that induce the visual impairments of drunkenness. Employees interested in Native American outreach wore tribal regalia and engaged kids in dancing, story-telling and gift-giving; they include (from l) Rebecca Tudisco, Sophia Delgado, Debbie Sweitzer, and Cynthia Delgado of the Office of Science Education, who is Sophia’s mom.

NHGRI scientific director Dr. Eric Green said he was very pleased with the results of his staff's efforts. "They were terrific. It was also wonderful to see young, inquiring minds get excited about DNA, about genetics and about science in general. The energy from the students was electrifying, thanks to the efforts of Jackie Idol and her able assistants."

Indeed, the children did seem to be thrilled to be part of the NIH lab experience. Smashing a cold strawberry in a bag, extracting a slime of DNA with a coffee stirrer and eating a DNA model made of candy proved to be just the ticket for arousing curiosity about science.

"Fun with DNA" participant proudly displays her extraction of strawberry DNA. Kids and parents alike were delighted with the presentations during Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day 2005.

Lara Haft, an elementary school student and daughter of Carol Haft of NIDDK, cruised through the experiments. "If I become a scientist," she said, "then I want to be a genome scientist. It's more fun." And one proud parent could be overheard saying, "One of these kids could cure a disease one day just because they got interested in DNA from this program."

If you and your child missed out on the fun with DNA, there's always next year. According to Green, NHGRI is planning similar activities for Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day in 2006.

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