Organizers of Michigan DNA Day skillfully adapted to pandemic limitations and moved the event online. It was no small undertaking as 58 science ambassadors coordinated with 30 Michigan teachers to virtually visit approximately 1,000 high school students! This took place against the backdrop of changing scenarios from in-person to hybrid and virtual classrooms.

MI DNA Day is an offshoot of National DNA Day, which was created to commemorate the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953. In typical years, science ambassadors visit high school classrooms across the state of Michigan to present interactive lessons, or modules, about DNA-related topics and to share their STEM journeys. The goal is to increase interest in and familiarity with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). MI DNA Day provides a unique opportunity for high school students to meet and interact with early career scientists to clarify misconceptions of what scientists look like and break down barriers for students to follow scientific career paths.

Clearly, the primary challenge of the 2021 virtual event was the inability to work on hands-on activities in the classroom. Nevertheless, the event proceeded and connected high school students with people working in STEM.

"One of the best things about Michigan DNA Day is that it brings together volunteers from so many schools and departments across U-M in service of the community,” said Drew Larson, EEB graduate student, Michigan DNA Day ambassador and director for 2020-2021. “If we can spark an interest in science for a single student and get them thinking about new possibilities for their future, or reduce their perceived barriers to beginning a career in STEM, to me, that makes it all worth it."

Science ambassadors presented short lessons on a DNA-related topic, and many also shared their personal journey in STEM. This year’s modules were on the following topics: ecology and evolutionary biology (new this year!), forensics, genomics, microbiology and immunology, and pharmacogenetics. Another EEB graduate student, Sonal Gupta, served on the E-Board.

Larson taught the EEB module to five biology classes at Pioneer High School. “It consisted of a short explanation about the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA and the sequencing of the human genome project,” Larson explained. “Then, we provide an age-appropriate discussion of natural selection and the process of speciation.”

He highlighted a scientist, Dr. C. Brandon Ogbunu, an EEB assistant professor at Yale University, to demonstrate the types of questions evolutionary biologists seek to answer. Larson ended by describing his own journey in STEM, a few of his research questions and how he began a career in EEB. In future years, the EEB module will incorporate hands-on activities.

Other EEB participants included the following graduate students: So Eun Moon, Kristen Wacker, Rachel Wadleigh and Chloe Weise, and EEB postdoctoral fellow Deise Goncalves.

People from the following departments/programs/schools participated: Bioinformatics, Biological Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Biophysics, Cancer Biology, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Department of Human Genetics, Department of Internal Medicine – Genetics, Department of Pathology; U-M Medical School, Department of Physiology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Health Sciences, Human Genetics, Life Sciences Institute, Microbiology and Immunology, Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Neurology, Neuroscience Graduate Program, Pathology, Pharmacology, Program in Chemical Biology, School of Public Health.

They virtually visited 21 high schools from Ann Arbor, Belleville and Bloomfield, Clinton, Detroit and Dearborn to Pontiac and Troy, to name a few. MI DNA Day is sponsored through the Department of Human Genetics.

Some of the written feedback from event surveys includes the following. From high school teachers:

“I like that my students could see a scientist doing real-life research relating to the DNA AND evolution topics we learned about in class” and “I love introducing my students to scientists!”

From science ambassadors regarding what they liked the most about MI DNA Day:

“Interacting with students and hopefully making them excited about science and a potential career path!”

“So many things! Connecting with students. Being a resource for the students and the teacher. Giving back to the community. Offering something GOOD in these crazy pandemic times.”

“Practicing my teaching skills and interacting with young learners.”

“Getting students excited about vaccinations!”

“Talking about my personal experience and encouraging students to have a science career.”

“I loved interacting with the students.”

“It was fun and the fact that the students said this was different and fun from all their Zoom classes made me feel like I actually made a difference in their day.”