By Lisa McDonald

Having Fun with Genomics

I am the generation after landing on the moon. As a child, I don’t recall having any science inspiration. I was fortunate to have parents that made it possible for me and my siblings to get a very good education. I went to a small parochial school outside of Washington, DC. It was a great school but we had no labs and so my exposure to science was limited at best.  I always liked school and did well, especially in math.

Then I went to Elizabeth Seton High School and had a bumpy road of it. I had two strong teachers mentoring me, Sr. Lani, my homeroom teacher, and Sr. Mary Marguerite in Pre Calculus and Calculus. Though I still had no real strong interest in science, I decided to take AP Biology in senior year. Ms. D’Apolito made us read science journals. Wow! That was unbelievably hard!! I struggled. But in this class, Ms. D’Apolito brought her love of science and research experience into the classroom. I vividly remember reading a journal article about E. coli and thought, “This is so cool! I want to go into research.” And my friends thought I was crazy. So off to college I went, majoring in nursing.

Staying locally, I entered the Catholic University of America, planning to concentrate in nursing. My first year chemistry was taught by this incredible teacher, Dr. Diane Bunce, who is currently a Nifty Fifty with the USA Science and Engineering Festival. She made chemistry exciting and alive!! My second semester, I knew I really wanted to study science. Through many discussions with Dr. Bunce, I realized with a chemistry degree I could do anything from make new plastics to make new cosmetics (her sister worked at a major cosmetic company). Finally, I decided I really wanted Biochemistry – I love photosynthesis!! From there, I continued to work with Dr. Bunce who specialized in chemistry education. I was a teaching assistant (TA) for her professional development in the summer – working with high school chemistry teachers – and I TA’d in her non-science major chemistry class. Dr. Bunce is one of my greatest mentors.

From there, I graduated and had another extraordinary opportunity to come to work in what was described as a “controversial” lab at NIH. I had no idea what I was walking into – but am extremely grateful that Dr. Venter gave me the opportunity to work in his lab. From there, you can read Dr. Venter’s book. I participated in the greatest scientific revolution – the beginnings of genomics!! Furthermore, I have gotten back to my roots – I get to work with teachers, students and “non-science” community to excite them about science and genomics.

Why do I share my story? To explain the difference between my school science experience and the opportunities that exists today for kids of all ages. I never had the opportunity to participate in science enrichment programs because very few existed then. This coming week, JCVI is presenting at two awesome events and hosting a group of young women for a special program in San Diego. First, March 6 and 13, we will be hosting BEWiSE, Better Education for Women in Science & Engineering. BEWiSE is a program of the San Diego Science Alliance and makes a difference for talented young women who are encouraged to contribute to science and engineering professions. Twenty 9th graders will have the opportunity to explore the microbial diversity from soil in a sediment battery by working with JCVI’s Orianna Bretschger. Wow! I never did this in high school or college.

We are also presenting on March 6th at the “Expanding Your Horizon Conference” at the University of San Diego. My colleague, Crystal Snowden, will be hosting a workshop discussing the sediment fuel cell and exploring the bacteria present. This conference reaches out to young girls too! What fun to see the critters under the microscope!

Finally, we will be exhibiting along with several other organizations in the area at the San Diego Science Alliance High Tech Fair. Here, we will have the sediment batteries, microscopes for viewing sea water microbes and soil bacteria, plus slides of diatoms found in Antarctica. Did you really think that electricity could be generated from mud, let alone, sludge??

I wish I had the opportunity to go to programs like this when I was young! You never know when that spark will be lit - in a classroom, at a science festival, watching the waves or a discussion over dinner. Finally, a big thank you goes to all my mentors I’ve had in my life: Sr. Lani, Sr. Mary Marguerite, Ms. D’Apolito, Dr. Bunce and Dr. Venter!

Have you thanked your teachers and mentors lately?

Watch for pictures next week.