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Ag Progress Days + Science = FUN!

Posted: August 21, 2012

The Center for Reproductive Biology and Health and the Society for the Study of Reproduction teamed up for an outreach program that attracted nearly 500 visitors.
Francisco Diaz, Ph.D, explains how the DNA samples are processed.

Francisco Diaz, Ph.D, explains how the DNA samples are processed.

Science can be fun! That was the message nearly 500 visitors of all ages to Penn State's Ag Progress Days took away after visiting the Department of Animal Science (DAS) and the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) outreach activity manned by Francisco Diaz, Ph.D., and students from the DAS Reproduction Research Team.

Young people gained an in-depth look at reproductive biology by taking their own DNA samples, viewing a video montage of images of cells from different animals and seeing chicken embryos in various stages of development.

The most unique activity was taking home a necklace sporting a heart-shaped vial containing a sample of visitor's DNA. From swabbing the cheeks for a sample, to preparing the vials to separate the protein from the DNA, to isolating the actual DNA, youth who took the time to participate were clearly captivated with the scientific process. And that was the point: show them that science is fun and rewarding and relevant, and start them on a path to scientific discovery. More than 100 DNA samples from young people and 45 samples of strawberry DNA were processed.

Diaz said, "For us, this is an excellent opportunity to get exposure about reproductive biology in the greater community.  We are spreading the word about Penn State's Center for Reproductive Biology and Health (CRBH), and we have been delighted to interact with so many visitors over the three days here."

The Outreach program coincided with Penn State's hosting of the SSR annual meeting, attended by nearly 800 scientists from around the country and the world. The four-day meeting was at the University Park campus, but Diaz and his team worked together at Ag Progress Days, a natural venue for exciting youth about the possibilities in science.

Jelena Brkic, a Ph.D. student at York University in Toronto, Canada, was attending the SSR conference, heard about the youth activity and tagged along to help. She said, "Having a positive hands-on experience with science is so important for kids - and can change the course of someone's life."  Experienced in outreach programs sponsored by York University, Brkic said, "I love doing this. It shows that science can be fun, and may encourage kids to do more science-based activities. It shows them that science has so many applications."  It also breaks down stereotypes, she noted, as she looked at the three-woman team doing the outreach.

Alecia Rickabaugh, Stormstown,  PA, junior in Animal Science, added, "I love doing it. It shows kids that science can be fun."

Katie Branham, Lincoln University, PA, senior in Animal Science, added, "The kids are having a great time and are very excited about it. Many adults are also asking questions and listening to our explanation of the process."

After observing the process of preparing the samples, the young people had to wait while the samples were incubated, then cooled down and the DNA extracted. During that time many visited with Diaz who showed them the very distinct features of developing chick embryos. Shown through a microscope and projected on a computer screen, the beak, wings and other features were clearly visible. 

Diaz also explained how vital the proper transmission of genetic information (DNA) is to future generations and notes that the development of embryos from a single cell is a "complicated, precarious process." A common reaction was: "Cool."

It was clear that not just the youth were impressed with the close-up view of science in action. Many adults listened carefully as the DNA samples were collected and processed, and also watched the computer screens intently to see the developing cells.

The activity was made possible through a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities.

Rewarded for their patience with their DNA samples as well as a calculator, pen and t-shirt, young people went away happy - and with a new understanding of the "fun" that science can be, and, hopefully, a new spark of interest in science.