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NHGRI Researcher Returns to the Classroom to Teach - and Learn

April 2005

Photo of Sarah Anzick and students holding up test tubes.Biological research is all about the quest for knowledge about nature. High school is all about the acquisition of knowledge from those who have gone before. Put a biological researcher in a high school classroom and each can learn from the other, the idea behind the third National DNA Day, this April 25, 2005.

National DNA Day celebrates the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003 and the anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helical structure in April 1953. Since the DNA Day program began in 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, has sent ambassadors - mostly postdoctoral researchers from the institute's Division of Intramural Research - to speak about genomic science and careers in research to high school classes across the nation.

One of this vanguard is Sarah Anzick, Ph.D., a 38-year-old researcher in NHGRI's Cancer Genetics Branch, who feels that being a DNA Day Ambassador is as much an opportunity for her to feed her own curiosity about what is on the minds of high school students and their teachers as it is for her to feed their curiosity about genetics and genomics.

"While I'm trying to teach high school students and teachers about genomics and my scientific interests, I'm also trying to learn as much about their backgrounds and interests as possible," Dr. Anzick said. "It's something I find very helpful and rewarding."

Since 2003, Dr. Anzick has set out in late April with dozens of other NHGRI ambassadors to high schools nationwide. Like many of the ambassadors, the first year Dr. Anzick returned to her hometown high school in Livingston, Montana, an experience she described as both exhilarating and nerve wrenching.

"The first year, I was very nervous going back to my hometown high school. In fact, it was a little difficult because the students did not have an extensive knowledge of DNA and genetics. However, I learned an incredible amount of useful information about what does and doesn't work with students that age. When I went back last year, I was able to adapt my presentation so that students were more involved. I even did a little science demonstration," she explained. "It was much better."

In addition to revisiting hometown high schools last year, DNA Day organizers challenged the ambassadors to "reach out" to a broader and more diverse set of schools. Growing up in Montana, she was aware of Native American culture, but never really had the opportunity to interact with it. DNA Day gave Dr. Anzick that chance. She asked to be sent to a Native American high school and was assigned to a school on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning Montana.

The splendor of the trip to the reservation, which lies just to the east of scenic Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, was in stark contrast to what she found when she arrived at the school: a drab, unadorned building in the middle of a barren, windswept landscape. Dr. Anzick said her initial fears that she might be an unwelcome visitor in such a forbidding place were quickly allayed the minute she stepped inside.

"The teachers were incredibly warm, and within a short time, I felt completely comfortable. I was surprised, to say the least," she said. "More surprising was the fact that the students were very enthusiastic and seemed to have an innate understanding of heredity and genetics. They asked very specific questions about how genetics could help them with everyday problems, such as how it might aid them in developing better breeds of horses."

Growing up in Montana and spending her childhood camping, hiking, riding horses and building snow forts, Dr. Anzick was immediately able to connect with the students, and, she believes, they connected with her. She followed up her visit by sending the teachers lesson materials and other information. She hopes her presence was able to help spark a greater curiosity about science in some of the students, just as her father sparked her curiosity when she was very young.

"My father is a small- and large-animal veterinarian," she explained. "From the time I was about 5 years old, I started dreaming about going to medical or veterinary school. When I started college, that's what I wanted to do. But during a summer internship just prior to my junior year in college, I discovered my passion for genetics research."

Dr. Anzick said when she learned about the new technologies being developed in the NHGRI Cancer Genetics Branch, where she now works, she knew what her career path would be. Today, Dr. Anzick uses state-of-the-art microarray technologies, which allow researchers to study a large number of genes simultaneously, to investigate the genetics of colorectal cancer, one of the nation's biggest killers. In addition to her research responsibilities, she also is the director of the NHGRI Intramural Training Office, which oversees a wide range of important training-related activities for the institute's intramural research program. The Intramural Training Office provides critical support to research trainees at NHGRI by orienting them to the institute, facilitating their annual reviews, and providing them with information about and opportunities for career development. Serving as a DNA Day ambassador is a natural extension of her work with trainees at all levels, Dr. Anzick said.

This year, Dr. Anzick asked to be sent to an outreach school anywhere in the northwest United States and was assigned to a school in Hood River, Oregon. She said the school's science teacher contacted her immediately, saying she could not wait for Dr. Anzick's visit and how important it would be for the students. Dr. Anzick also received an unexpected note from the school's guidance counselor saying he also could not wait for her visit.

"It turns out that he was also my high school English teacher in Montana." Another pleasant surprise!" she exclaimed.

Receiving such an overwhelming response from the school is very gratifying to Dr. Anzick. However, she said, it is even more gratifying to know that she will have the opportunity to learn as much, if not more, from them as they do from her.

Last updated: October 19, 2011