The next generation of biodiversity genomics researchers are trained in the Youth Engagement through Science (YES!)- Genome program, sponsored by the Global Genome Initiative (GGI).
White lab coats hang on chairs, the faint smell of latex gloves lingers in the air, and the low robotic noise of churning pistons hums as large genomic sequencing machines unravel the code of life. Enter the Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB) and it feels like stepping into a world of discovery, and the high school students involved in the Smithsonian’s Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) Genome program get to be a part of that world.
With genomics becoming an increasingly important part of how the world defines and studies organisms, inspiring and training the next generation of genomics researchers is critical. Here, at the Smithsonian, our YES! program is a multi-year summer internship that aims to inspire diverse high school students from the Washington Metropolitan Area to pursue careers in science.
Through the program, students get to work with researchers for a summer in several of the local Smithsonian museums, the Smithsonian Gardens, and the National Zoo. After they complete their first summer in YES!, interested students can compete for limited positions in a second-year program focused on genomics. As YES! Genome interns, they spend the summer focusing on genomics in the Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB), the National Museum of Natural History’s molecular genomics lab. Here students are immersed in cutting-edge academic research using state-of-the-art technology in genomics science.
YES! Genome students spend the first two weeks of this internship in boot camp where they extract DNA from living organisms and sequence the entire genomes on NextGen sequencing platforms. YES! Global Genome 2014 and 2015 students focused on sequencing the Marsh Elder.
Why study a common wild flower like Marsh Elder?
The Marsh Elder (Iva annua) is a close relative of the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), and it was cultivated by Native Americans from approximately 5000–1000 years ago, but then it's use by humans declined as it was replaced by more productive plants. The Sunflower has been domesticated for nearly 4,000 years and continues to be cultivated as it provides valuable seeds and oil for human consumption. Ancient seeds of both plant species have been found at archeological sites in caves throughout Kentucky. An international team of scientists on this project will compare the ancient DNA from the prehistoric-age seeds with contemporary domesticated Sunflower plants to examine changes in the genome through the process of domestication. The Marsh Elder provides a "null model" system to compare a plant that was domesticated, but was allowed to revert back to the wild, thus its genome is only changing through the evolutionary process of natural selection.
After boot camp, students are sufficiently trained and independent enough to work on their own. Students pair-off with mentors in the Museum to conduct their own genetic projects for the next month. By the end of the internship, the students have not only conducted a variety of research projects on different organisms, but have experienced what it means to be a scientist.
The students learn basic skills in scientific writing, verbal communication, computer skills, data management (informatics), and social media. The final week, students complete iBooks, ejournals, and presentations on their own genetic projects.
On the last day of the program, YES! Genome students present their projects to an audience of first year students, family, friends, mentors, and the public through hands-on interpretation stations in Q?rius. Here they obtain their first experience educating the public in the understanding of science by explaining their summer research projects to visitors.
By Daniel G. Mulcahy, staff of the Global Genome Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History.