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Vol. LIX, No. 12
June 15, 2007
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Students Dance for National DNA Day

  NHGRI's Pnina Laric (foreground, l) and Carla Easter enjoy a performance of <i>Ferocious Beauty: Genome</i>.  
  NHGRI's Pnina Laric (foreground, l) and Carla Easter enjoy a performance of Ferocious Beauty: Genome.  

It coils, unwinds, replicates and sometimes gets mutated and deleted. I'm not referring to DNA, but to a group of 75 high school students that, in a creative sense, became DNA for a day. The National Human Genome Research Institute, the NIH Office of Science Education and a world-renowned dance company in Takoma Park, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, partnered to give area students a chance to dance their way to a better understanding of science and the creative process.

The diverse group of students and their teachers came to the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., from schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Their challenge was to translate a science topic-mitosis, bioinformatics, induced mutation or natural mutation-into artistic movements. The local event, dubbed "Genes in Motion," was just one of a variety of activities held across the country in celebration of National DNA Day on Apr. 25.

NHGRI staff came up with the idea for the program last fall when they saw Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a multimedia performance by the Lerman Company dancers that epitomizes the successful blending of art and science. The unique work explores the evolution of genetic research and its impact on society. "DNA Day was a perfect time for the program to occur, because the Ferocious Beauty performances were scheduled in D.C. at the same time," said Sarah Harding, principal coordinator of the event for NHGRI. The goal of the program was to teach scientific concepts using a process established by the Dance Exchange. The process engages members of the community such as scientists, clergy and artists in the choreography of a dance.

Dancer Elizabeth Johnson as Ms. Tata in Ferocious Beauty: Genome, captures a human version
  Dancer Elizabeth Johnson as Ms. Tata in Ferocious Beauty: Genome, captures a human version of an adenine and thymine rich region of DNA (known as the TATA box) responsible for turning genes on.
 

In the morning, Genes in Motion participants assembled to watch excerpts from Ferocious Beauty: Genome. After each piece, Liz Lerman (founding artistic director of the dance company) explained the creative processes that were used to discover and interpret the science concepts. Students then asked questions and commented on the performance. Lerman eased performance anxiety by reminding students that "mistakes happen in dance and in science," a sentiment echoed by others throughout the day. "The genome is in our bodies. What better way to explore it than through our bodies? The body will remember sometimes before our intellect," said Elizabeth Johnson, an Exchange dancer.

After the morning session, students joined one of the four workshops, each led by a team that included a dancer, an educator and a scientist. The groups were challenged to choreograph a dance for their topic. At the end of the day, students reconvened, performed their creations and answered questions from their peers.

Students in several groups became a strand of DNA, expressing their roles through movement. In the natural mutation group, students fell in line, calling out their nucleotide base pairs: A, C, T or G (adenine, cytosine, thymine, guanine respectively). The "student-base pairs" then demonstrated insertions, deletions and substitutions.

Martine Behra, NHGRI post-doctoral fellow, led a Genes in Motion workshop to help high school students explore how and why scientists use induced mutations in the laboratory.
Martine Behra, NHGRI post-doctoral fellow, led a Genes in Motion workshop to help high school students explore how and why scientists use induced mutations in the laboratory.  
 

"I enjoyed watching the students, who at first were self-conscious or harder to engage, lose themselves in the creative process," said Pnina Laric, NHGRI scientist for the group. "The science suddenly became more accessible to them." During group discussion, one student said, "After watching the dance, I can now visualize how genetic mutations occur."

The mitosis (or cell division) group was subdivided into two smaller groups. One danced the normal process of mitosis and the other danced the process gone awry. "It was clear by the students' interpretation that they really got it," said Carla Easter, NHGRI science education specialist, who worked with both groups. "The movement helped to reinforce the steps in the process. I imagine they will never be able to forget them."

Students were not the only ones to learn something new. Teachers were active participants, too. One said, "I learned how important it is to allow students to create expressions that reinforce basic science concepts."

"I learned so much about dance, movement and video production," says Vivien Bonazzi, NHGRI scientist who worked with the bioinformatics group. Students in her group depicted "the balance" required to make sense of large volumes of data, as needed in the merging fields of computational biology and bioinformatics.

"I was pleased to see that the dancers approach their work very much like bench scientists," said Martine Behra, the NHGRI scientist who worked with the induced mutation group. "They have an idea. We call it a hypothesis. They go out and test it. We do experiments," she added. Other participating scientists and dancers agreed. "It was a true joy to think and create with the scientists. I felt our roles became permeable," said Johnson.

NHGRI staff are now working on evaluating the program. "We hope the novel approach to science instruction can be used by other groups seeking to teach science in creative ways," said Harding. NIH Record Icon

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