By the time, high school students reach their senior year, they've learned about DNA, RNA and scientific theories about evolution and genetic variation. This year, more than 750 students went beyond those basic biology lessons to find topics they would write about and submit to an international essay contest sponsored by the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG). Held every year, the contest coincides with National DNA Day, which was established by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to commemorate the 1953 discovery of DNA's double helix structure and the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project.
Rachel Gleyzer, a tenth grade student at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J., took first place this year with her essay on the role genetics and the environment play in absolute pitch (AP), a person's ability to accurately and instantly identify a musical tone's pitch without hearing a preceding reference note. Ms. Gleyzer chose this topic because she wanted to know why some people she knew had AP, but she did not.
"I was so happy when I found out I was a finalist in the contest. It was exciting, but a little unexpected," said Ms. Gleyzer, adding that writing the essay was not easy. "I had to read a lot of complex technical information and try to make it interesting and accessible, but it really improved my writing," she said.
"It's very important that good scientists are good communicators," said Carol Zepatos, Ms. Gleyzer's biology teacher. "This is a great opportunity for students to hone their technical writing skills." Ms. Zepatos requires all of her biology students to write an essay for the contest.
ASHG encourages participation in the contest by marketing it to teachers, rather than to students. Teachers, in turn, equip their students to write the essays by educating their classes on that year's topic. This year, students were asked to identify and describe at least one genetic factor and one environmental factor that contribute to a particular complex trait, such as blood pressure or height.
The essays went through three rounds of judging, during which more than 530 ASHG members judged them on accuracy, quality of writing and supporting arguments. The annual contest, which began in 2006, has grown significantly over the past few years. The 750 submissions in this year's contest is more than double the total number since 2009. All winners are awarded a monetary prize. The teachers of the top three winners receive grants for genetic teaching materials.
"The contest helps high school students to not only learn about genetics in the classroom, but it helps them use that knowledge in a meaningful way," said Katherine Lontok, Ph.D., ASHG's educational programs manager. "We were glad to see so many great essays from students who have a passion for genetics."
Ms. Gleyzer hopes to turn her passion into a career that combines molecular biology with the humanities.
"I want to take the skills I'd learn in a lab and be more creative with them," she said. For high school students thinking about entering next year's contest, she said, "Go for it! It'll pay off in the future. Just because something's challenging doesn't mean it's not worth doing."
Arwa Abdelhamid, Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, N.Y. .
Samantha Burns, Lely High School in Naples, Fla.
Vivien Chen, Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md
Hussein Elghazaly, El Alsson British & American International School in Haraniya, Giza
Lucas Lin, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.
Sangho Myung, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.
Rosie Nagele, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, Pa.
Allison Rerick, Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, N.Y.
Karl Tayeb, Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J.
Eytan Weinstein, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim in Jerusalem, Israel
The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) will celebrate National DNA Day at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., from Saturday, April 26 to Sunday, April 27. For more information go to: http://www.genome.gov/DNADay. Attendees will be able to participate in family-friendly activities on genetics and DNA with NHGRI staff and volunteers. NHGRI will also post on the National DNA Day Facebook and Twitter pages from the festival.
Posted: April 25, 2014