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Vol. LVII, No. 11
June 3, 2005
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NIH's First Online Chatroom Celebrates National DNA Day

In an online first for NIH, thousands of teachers and students observed the third annual National DNA Day on Apr. 25 by taking part in a web chat featuring experts from the National Human Genome Research Institute.

 
NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins takes part in a live, online chat with students and teachers on National DNA Day.  

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., nearly 1,200 questions poured in from students representing a broad cross-section of schools, states and even nations. More than two dozen of NHGRI's basic, clinical and ethics research staff — from postdocs to director Dr. Francis Collins and scientific director Dr. Eric Green — took part in the team effort to answer as many of those questions as possible in the relatively short time.

The students' questions ranged from the sophisticated, "How does methylation of DNA occur and what does it do to protect DNA from being cleaved?" to the simple, "Does SpongeBob have DNA?" A transcript of the chat can be read at http://www.genome.gov/14514261.

"What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to interact with my colleagues in that type of venue," said Dr. Colleen McBride, chief of NHGRI's Social and Behavioral Branch.

National DNA Day, begun in April 2003, commemorates the successful completion of the Human Genome Project and the anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix by Watson and Crick in 1953. The goal of DNA Day, planned and carried out by NHGRI's Education and Community Involvement Branch, is to provide educational resources to excite teachers and students about genomics research.

"The online chat was a terrific tool that allowed us to bring together researchers who had the common goal of interacting on a personal level with students to discuss genomics research," said Vence Bonham, chief of NHGRI's education branch.

The chat's "control center" consisted of a network of laptop computers set up in a conference room in Bldg. 50. A moderator and a team of editors directed questions to the most appropriate researcher, who then wrote his or her answer in language that could be easily understood by a high school student. As soon as an answer was submitted by the expert, it appeared in the online chat room that could be easily accessed by any student or class that had a computer set up to view the web.

The chat room's web-based application — which was 508-compliant so that it could be used by people with vision difficulties — was designed by the NHGRI web team and managed by Larry Thompson, chief of the Communications and Public Liaison Branch. Unlike many online chats that feature just one moderator and one expert answering a single question at a time, NHGRI set up its DNA Day chat room to maximize the number of questions that could be answered during the school day.

"We designed the online chat application so that we could have multiple researchers signed on to the same system answering as many questions about as many topics as possible," Thompson said. "In addition, our system was designed so that experts could walk in to the room, sit down and start answering questions without a huge learning curve to use the system. We would be glad to share what we've learned with other NIH institutes who would like to host similar educational online chats."

The challenge, according to Thompson, was integrating a customized workflow system into the online chat. This was accomplished by having the questions placed into a moderator "bucket." The moderator then assigned questions to editors who dealt them to experts.

David Smith, technical team lead for NHGRI's web site, www.genome.gov, wrote the application for the DNA day chat. "I was really happy with how it all turned out and was pleased that it could be accessed by anyone," he said. "At one point, I looked around and the room was quiet with 14 heads down, working hard to answer questions."

At the end of the day, NHGRI's "chatters" had answered 324 questions, approximately 40 per hour. In all, teachers and students sent in 1,139 questions, many of them repeats of questions asked earlier.

In addition to the chat, NHGRI produced two easily accessible, on-demand webcasts, which were video lectures synced with slides that could be viewed by teachers and students for DNA Day. The first featured Collins, who spoke on "The Genome Era: What It Means for You." The second featured Dr. Elaine Ostrander, chief of NHGRI's Cancer Genetics Branch, who described her work using the dog genome to understand canine and human disease in a talk titled "The Power of Comparison: Unleashing the Dog Genome." Both products are available at www.genome.gov/DNAday.

The web team also made the video presentations available for download so that teachers could save them on their hard drives. "We wanted access to be a primary component of National DNA Day so we made the webcasts available as downloadable zip files for teachers and students who may not have had a high speed Internet connection," said Smith. The 508-compliant presentations were viewed or downloaded nearly 6,000 times during the week of National DNA Day.

Also, as it has done for the past 2 years, NHGRI sent dozens of researchers and staffers acting as "DNA ambassadors" to visit high schools in rural and urban communities across the country. These ambassadors explained basic science concepts and provided first-hand accounts of what life is like on the front lines of genomic research.

"The primary objective of DNA Day is to interest a diverse set of students in pursuing careers in genomic research," said Bonham. "The information is also important for any students who want to understand the impact of genomics research on their future health and its societal implications."

And then there is the sort of student who wants to know about SpongeBob. Demonstrating that scientific expertise can co-exist with cartoon savvy, scientific director Green actually tackled the question, "Does SpongeBob have DNA?" His answer adapted the cartoon's theme song: "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Absorbent and yellow and porous is he, etc. Yes, SpongeBob (like all living creatures) has DNA with the same fundamental structure as humans. Now, his SquarePants probably do not contain DNA, though."

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