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On genomic literacy

The age-old story of Watson and Crick discovering the double helix that eventually came to be referred to as DNA is just that now—old. DNA is a term that gets tossed around now with the frequency that Lady Gaga changes her hairstyle. There’s an online news service called DNAinfo, an ongoing (and often misinformed) debate over genetically-modified crops, and an increasing awareness of hereditary traits and medical conditions (see Angelina Jolie’s virally shared New York Times op-eds).

As a science writer, I love hearing nonscientists talk, tweet, and post about genetic topics because it means that as a whole, science writers are doing a satisfactory job of communicating complex research to the general public. But I think that we can do one better.

On a recent “field trip” to the New York Genome Center with the local science writers group I belong to, SWINY, I had the pleasure of listening to lectures from and having conversations with several of their top genomic researchers as well as taking a tour of their impressive SoHo facility. Wait, what’s a genomic researcher? Funny you ask because Nathan Pearson, Senior Director of Scientific Engagement and Public Outreach, said it is his mission to decrease the frequency with which that question is asked.

The difference between genetic and genomic research is that the former deals with the study of specific genes and how they are passed from generation to generation while the latter looks at all of a person’s genes and their interactions with each other and a person’s environment. Genomes can also be analyzed on a population scale. Genomic science is a relatively new and expanding field (the New York Genome Center was only founded in 2011), and important for understanding the basis of complex diseases, especially cancer.

Working among the outdoor terraces, standing desks, cushy break-out areas, and whiteboard walls graffitied with equations, the scientists at the New York Genome Center have it pretty good—they even have showers and changing rooms for those who want to bike or run to work! Their collaborations with multiple local hospitals have resulted in findings that aid in drug development for rare diseases. Most, if not all, lab directors and faculty are active on Twitter, constantly encouraging the public discussion of the implications of their research.

At the event, Pearson asked for a show of hands of how many of us had ever had our exomes examined (read: the roughly 1.5% of the human genome responsible for coding proteins that easier and cheaper to study). Only 2 people raised their hands, and frankly I wasn’t surprised. Learning your genetic make-up can be scary as there is still so much unknown about what exactly each building block means for your future. But that is the reason why we should be paying more attention, and in turn inciting others to do the same.

The New York Genome Center hosts countless free public workshops, lectures, and events featuring world-class researchers and geared toward all levels of interest, and I would highly recommend you check them out. The more we can understand why we are who we are and how who we are affects those around us, the more we can improve the human experience.

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