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ASHG hosts fourth annual DNA Day essay contest, supports genetics education efforts

BETHESDA, MD April 24, 2009 In celebration of National DNA Day, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and the Genetics Society of America (GSA) have joined with corporate sponsor Life Technologies Corporation (NASDAQ:LIFE) through its Life Technologies Foundation, to educate students and teachers about important concepts in genetic science by hosting the fourth annual National DNA Day Essay Contest.

Celebrated annually on April 25, National DNA Day commemorates the discovery of DNA's double helix and the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003. The essay contest is just one of the many DNA Day activities designed to excite students about human genetics and help them gain a better understanding of the underlying scientific principles and research methods.

"ASHG's National DNA Day Essay Contest is an educational initiative that brings students and their teachers together with some of the best geneticists in the world," said Joann Boughman, Ph.D., executive vice president of ASHG. "Our organization coordinates the essay contest and other educational activities because, as the largest society for genetics professionals, we feel that it is important for us to raise awareness about the value of genetics education and research. ASHG is also committed to sharing a broader understanding of human genetics by reaching out to students in science classrooms around the world, in an effort to increase their excitement about and interest in the field."

ASHG's annual DNA Day Essay Contest challenges science students in grades 9-12 to question and reflect on key concepts of human genetics by writing an original essay that provides a substantive, well-reasoned argument about the genetic basis of various traits, including those related to health and disease. This year, ASHG received a total of 300 essay submissions from high school students in the U.S., Canada, and other countries, such as China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ghana. More than 150 geneticists from ASHG and GSA volunteered to judge the students' essays on the basis of critical thinking, scientific accuracy, creativity and organization.

"Most genetics units in high school contain little or no information about complex traits which are those influenced by many different genes and the environment," said Michael Dougherty, Ph.D., Director of Education for ASHG. "This year's essay questions gave teachers a reason to talk about common diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and schizophrenia, which are the subject of much current research in genomics."

Today, in celebration of National DNA Day, ASHG and corporate sponsor Life Technologies Foundation announced the winners of the fourth annual DNA Day Essay Contest during the live online DNA Day 2009 Chatroom sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NHGRI/NIH). The students who submitted the top responses for each of the two essay contest questions were awarded $400; second place winners were awarded $250; and third place winners, $150. Teachers of the students who won first place prizes will each receive $2,000 to purchase new laboratory equipment for their science classrooms.


High school students in grades 9-12 were invited to submit written essays on one of the following two questions. The first essay question asked students to explain the relationship between genes and traits. More specifically, students had to explain whether all inherited traits come in only two distinct varieties, or whether some traits have a more complex pattern of inheritance.

For the first essay question, ASHG and GSA judges awarded first place to Mehera Emrich, a senior from Acalanes High School in Lafayette, Calif. Emrich's essay explained the relationship between genes and traits, and she impressed the geneticist judges by contrasting modern scientific understanding with John Locke's philosophical construct that humans are born as a 'tabula rasa' or 'blank slate' that is 'filled in' by each person's environment. In her essay, Emrich acknowledged the importance of both heredity and the environment when she wrote, "Mendel greatly underestimated genetic complexity, while Locke grossly overestimated the impact of environmental influences on human development." She concluded her essay by stating that, "Perhaps it would be more correct to say that genes, by creating a living organism, provide a slate that has already been written on. With the passage of time the environment edits this writing, modifying the wording but maintaining the essence of the original document."

ASHG and GSA awarded second place to Laura Molina, a sophomore from Viera High School in Viera, Fla., for her answer to the first essay question. In her essay, Molina provided an insightful description of a variety of inheritance patterns that go beyond the 'either/or' types studied by Mendel. In her own words, Molina wrote that, "Not all traits come in just two varieties. Modes of inheritance like co-dominance, incomplete dominance, and epistasis involve intricate interactions between the expression of multiple alleles and/or genes that often result in the existence of three or more varieties of traits, such as human blood markers and flower color." Molina concluded her essay by affirming that, "Future investigation will probably uncover even more complex modes of inheritance and relationships between genes and traits that will improve our [current] understanding of genetics."

For the first essay contest question, ASHG and GSA awarded third place to Stephen Wang, a junior at the Charter School of Wilmington in Wilmington, Del., for his insightful description of the relationship between genes and traits. In his prize-winning essay, explained that, "Geneticists have discovered phenomenashowing that more than two variations are possible for any one given trait." Wang concluded his essay by noting that, "Therefore, not all traits for all species come in only two varieties. Often, these traits can come in 3 or 4, [or] maybe more variations, each the result of a complex genetic combination."

For the second of the two essay contest questions, the ASHG and GSA judges awarded first place to Michael Kovacs, a senior from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., for his response. In his essay, Kovacs wrote about obesity, using this health condition as an example to illustrate the complexity of the genetic and environmental interactions that can contribute to disease. In his own words, "Obesity, like so many other health risks, is the sum of a variety of conditions that add up to a life-threatening illness." Kovacs then described some of these 'conditions' or 'factors' that can cause disease. He concluded his essay with the following astute observation, stating that, "We cannot take the reductionist approach to health and disease by assigning just a single cause to a single problem. Genetics, infections, and the environment play some role in most diseases, and by understanding how they all work together to create so serious a problem as obesity, we can potentially provide better methods of treatment, prevention, and control of these diseases."

Jennifer Li, a junior at Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C., won second place for her response to the second of the two essay contest questions. In her cleverly titled essay, "The Intricacy of Human Diseases: From the Pea to Phenylketonuria," Li adeptly illustrated her understanding of how certain environmental factors can influence human health and disease. She did so by describing the surprising complexity of phenylketonuria (or PKU), which is a rare, inherited single-gene disorder that affects a person's ability to properly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine and, if left untreated, can cause problems with brain development that could lead to mental retardation. In her essay, Li gave a perceptive description of the complex nature of human disease when she explained that, "In general, human diseases are the result of manifold and intertwining factors." Li concluded her essay with the following observation that, "[An] intricate web of multiple genetic and environmental factors all play a role in disease development."

Sharon Hartzell, a junior from Chenango Forks High School in Binghamton, N.Y., won third place for her response to the second essay question. In her essay, Hartzell explained the delicate balance between genes and environment to convey an accurate understanding of the causes of human health and disease. In her own words, Hartzell described that, "Human disease is influenced in its transmission and in its manifestation by both our internal and external environments...Both heritable and infectious diseases are strongly influenced by both genetics and the external environment, and an understanding of this relationship is crucial to human health." Hartzell concluded her essay by stating that, "Those at risk for heritable diseases strongly influenced by environmental factors, such as cancer and heart disease, can cultivate healthy habits to prevent the onset of disease."


Contact: Kristen Long
American Society of Human Genetics

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