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Feature Story: Ginseng, Genomics, and Jasmine

Out of the past, and into the future. Five DC-area high school students enjoyed a summer opportunity that most young people only dream of – six weeks at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) learning genomic science lab techniques and working one-on-one with top scientists in the field.

The students were interns in the Global Genome Career Pathway (GGCP) program, a new youth engagement activity of the Global Genome Initiative (GGI), which encourages study and conservation of biological diversity worldwide. What better way to ensure the future of this field, than to train and encourage young genomic scientists?  The Global Genome Career Pathway program is an extension of NMNH’s Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) program, started in 2010, which places high school student interns in the Museum, National Zoo, Smithsonian Gardens, or the Air and Space Museum. 

From African Insects to Herbal Medicine

Jasmine Jackson, a rising senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Washington, DC, is among the first GGCP interns and building on her experience as a YES! student.  In 2012, Jasmine worked with an entomologist who collected insects in Kenya. “My job was separating the insects by Order from the different jars they had,” said Jasmine. “It was really interesting … but it made my decision in biology even harder, for [deciding] what I want to do!”
In the GGCP program, Jasmine interned with Dr. Jun Wen, a plant biologist studying the genus Aralia, the closest relative of ginseng. Some Aralia plants are used in herbal medicine in Asia and the Americas, and Dr. Wen wondered where they originated. The answer lay with DNA.
Dr. Wen had collected Aralia specimens around the world, then preserved them in a freezer. “I was interested in whether these things would work after 18 years,” said Dr. Wen. “These young ladies did the first run of PCR [a procedure that amplifies short DNA sequences], and 17 out of 20 worked! Then I knew the DNAs were still OK.”

They can come with this resumé as a freshman and say: ‘Look, I know how to do PCR, I know how to amplify DNA.’ 

After that initial training in DNA protocols, Jasmine spent half of each week in Dr. Wen’s lab and half in enrichment activities … of which more later.  By the end of week six, answers started coming in: “With her results, we got a little [phylogenomic] tree,” said Dr. Wen. “The results already indicate Asia as the place of origin.” She expects that analysis of her remaining samples will reveal Aralia‘s origins in Eastern, Western, or Himalayan parts of Asia.  “We should be able to get a good publication out of it,” said Dr. Wen. When that happens, Jasmine Jackson, a high school senior, will be among the authors.

Interactions in the Genome Zone

But GGCP is more than research: One enrichment activity of GGCP students is interacting with visitors in NMNH’s Genome Zone, an area of hands-on activities associated with “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.”
“It’s part of our effort to teach them to communicate science to a public audience,” said Robert Costello, a program manager in NMNH’s Education and Outreach Department who designed the Career Pathway program.  He also believes GGCP will accelerate young genomic scientists’ access to university research labs: “They can come with this resumé as a freshman and say: ‘Look, I know how to do PCR, I know how to amplify DNA.’ I think it’s going to help them with their college choices.”
But perhaps Jasmine says it best:  “As long as you’re getting immersed in something, you’re doing what scientists do every single day and you’re getting to experience what they do. I think that gives you more of an outlook on what your future would be like.” For students in the GGCP program, whether they pursue genomic science or another area entirely, the future looks very bright.