Educating the Public on Genetics: An Interview with Neil Lamb, HudsonAlpha Insitute for Biotechnology
We talked to Dr. Neil Lamb, Vice President for Educational Outreach at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. He describes why educating the public on genomics is so important and the challenges of achieving this.
FLG: Can you Introduce HudsonAlpha?
NL: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a non-profit genomics research institute in Huntsville, Alabama. We are focused on using the tools and technologies that allow us to decipher the secrets of the genome and how it relates to issues around human health, sustainable agriculture and energy and how we can turn these discoveries into meaningful advancements.
The institute has a group of researchers on the campus, co-located with more than 30 biotechnology companies. They are by large independent of the work of the Institute but are right next door to our scientists. This means that as we make discoveries, there is a company on campus that could take it and turn it into meaningful advances. There’s also a patient clinic on the campus that allows us to explore large scale genomics testing and sequencing.
Then there’s a large educational programme that interfaces with both the research, the companies and the clinic to help create a genomically literate society and train the next generation of life science workers.
FLG: What is Your Role at HudsonAlpha?
NL: I have the privilege of leading the education and outreach programme here at the institute. I have a PhD in human genetics, came up through the traditional academic route and worked in a research-based sequencing lab at an academic medical centre. However, I realised that I was happiest either directly educating or talking about the work of other scientists, so I got the opportunity to come to HudsonAlpha and create the education programme from scratch. This was back when the building was literally a hole in the ground! I’ve been here for 13 years overseeing the birth of the education and outreach initiatives.
I think it says a lot about our founders and our leaders that from the very beginning they knew education would be critical. It wasn’t an afterthought, a nice add on, that we would tread out periodically; it has been a part of our history and our priority from the very beginning.
FLG: Why is it Important that the General Public are Informed on Genomics?
NL: Genetics is playing an ever-larger role in our society. It is increasingly impacting our health, including access to both diagnostics and treatments. Where our food comes from will be ever increasingly shaped by our knowledge of the specific genetic changes that are associated with crop hardiness, increased yield, nutritional value or the ability to grow under drought conditions.
Then there’s the rise of direct to consumer testing and ancestry that has really captured the public’s imagination. We are living in a world where more and more of our decisions will depend on some kind of genetic information. And in order to make informed decisions we have to have a basic understanding of what genomic based concepts mean; where their limitations are and where their strengths are. Not to try and have everyone make the same decision but to enable them to make their decisions from a place of knowledge; not a place of being ill-informed and swayed by great marketing or what someone’s social media post recommends.
FLG: What are the Challenges of Communicating Genetics Successfully?
NL: I think that one of the key challenges is recognising that everybody already has a little bit of knowledge about genetics and much of that knowledge is based on anecdotal stories that we hear, that we are told from the very beginning. For example, ‘you have your father’s eyes’ or your ‘grandfather’s facial features.’ So, we all have some sense that genetics are to do with why we look like the people that we’ve come from. But I think that one of the key challenges is that making sure that people ascribe the correct weighting for genomic information. This includes not putting too much weighting on one single piece of information from a genetic test. There are some cases where knowing that single type of genetic information, like a BRAC1 mutation indicating a high risk of breast cancer or a mutation associated with Huntington’s, indicates that you have a high chance of developing a disease. But when we talk about things like cardiovascular disorders, behavioural disorders, diabetes and personality, not ascribing an inappropriate amount of power to genetics becomes really important.
It’s also very difficult for us to understand things we can’t see and put our hands on. DNA is not something that we can see. When we talk about things like genetic engineering and genetic risk factors, that’s a difficult thing for people to understand as they can’t see it. We often don’t do a good job of describing these issues in everyday language.
I think that’s it’s very important that we place the science in its proper context. That we don’t oversell the scientific benefits, but we don’t run from it. I also think its very important that we find the right language. As scientists we are often trained to be very precise and exact in our language and description. That works great when you’re reading a paper or talking to a scientific colleague but falls flat when we talk to the public. Therefore, we have to make sure we use analogies and the right examples so that a member of the public can understand.
FLG: Why Should Scientists Care about Science Communication?
NL: Science is a public endeavour, with the majority funded by the public. We therefore have a responsibility to communicate to the public what we do with their money. Many of our discoveries may lead to advances that impact the very public we are trying to communicate to, so helping them understand topics including what is precision medicine? What a cancer therapy that is guided for genetic information looks like? How is gene editing used in food? And how does that compare to what we have traditionally called genetically modified organisms?
Scientists should care about science communication because it is at the heart of what happens with the findings they make and the applications of their research. I don’t know many scientists that don’t get excited about what they study. If they can hone their communication skills, they now have whole new audiences to share that excitement with; but that requires a different set of skills than the traditional communication training we receive as scientists.
FLG: What Education Programs does HudsonAlpha Run?
NL: All of our education programmes at HudsonAlpha are focused on two key parts; how do we create a more genomic literate society and how do we build the future workforce? There are over three dozen programmes that we implement, across Alabama and the globe. 90% of high school classrooms in the state of Alabama use DNA kits that HudsonAlpha has created to teach basic concepts in genetics.
The kids come into the classrooms free of charge and we train the science teachers on an ongoing basis and work with them extensively. Here are the things that are in your textbooks, that you are teaching to your students about genetics, how can we help you identify the misconceptions that your students come into the classroom with? How can we help you strengthen your own genetics knowledge to teach your students? How can we enrich student’s experiences, for example with a field trip, week long camp or a nine week long internship programme? How do we create opportunities for students so they can step into this field and see if this is a field they want to work in, and how do we equip them with the job skills to be successful?
Then there’s a whole host of public outreach; from blogs and videos to public education seminars that are offered on our campus or streamed live. We look for ways to share exciting stories, reduce barriers to access and to give learners real world links to the science being done at HudsonAlpha and around the world.
FLG: Can you Explain Common Misconceptions that People May Hold about Genetics?
NL: One we’ve already touched upon, and that’s that many people over ascribe the weighting that genetics have on many traits, for example personality. We get a lot of questions about personality traits, where people see some of these traits in families and assume that it is completely controlled by genetics.
People tend to think that common diseases, including cardiovascular and diabetes, are purely driven by genetics. A common phrase that I hear a lot is ‘I have the gene for that.’ Sometimes people have heard scientists say that they’ve identified a gene involved in a certain disease and assume that means they have the gene that causes the disease.
Our students understand that we inherit half of our DNA from mum and half of our DNA from dad. However, sometimes they think that ‘if I look like my mum on the outside, then I have my dad’s DNA on the inside.’ Those kinds of misconceptions start with a nugget of truth – I get my DNA from both parents so I should expect to see that equal representation.
The other issue that we run into a lot is the challenges around gene editing technology, especially concerning recent discoveries. People want to understand what these discoveries mean, whether it is the CRISPR modified babies or new packaging labels on bioengineered food. It’s really about taking the time to dig into the science and current issues in the news, but in everyday language. One way that we do that is through a blog called Shareable Science. Every two weeks I take a look at the latest genomics headlines and break down those complex topics.
FLG: Why is it Important that Children are Engaged in Science from a Young Age?
NL: Young children are naturally curious about the world around them. They are born explorers and we want to capture and take advantage of that. Studies show that students are turned off from science and math in that 10-13 years old window, so we pay special attention to engaging students in that age bracket.
We started our conversation by noting that more and more of our world is shaped by genomic information, so even if none of these students go into the genetics field, they’ll be making decisions based on genetic information. At the bare minimum I want to make sure that they are able to make informed decisions. Then for the students that go ‘this is really cool, I really love this,’ how do we provide opportunities for them to explore what this might mean as a career pathway?
It is incredibly challenging as an educator; you have information to share but some of the tools that we use to share the information makes it feel like science is just a set of facts for memorisation, instead of an opportunity to explore the world around us. We need to reframe teaching science away from ‘let’s memorise the facts’ – you can find these facts at your fingerprints now. We need to reframe the conversation to ‘look at this really cool phenomenon – why is this? How can we design an experiment to see what causes this? This is the opportunity that scientists get to have every day. They get to ask questions about the world around them and try to uncover answers that nobody has yet learnt.
We at HudsonAlpha feel that education is at the heart of genomics.