Genetics: Complicated stuff?

For a long time now, whenever I tell people that I do genetics research, their reaction is “Cloning? DNA and stuff like that? What do you clone?” I then say that I work on melanoma genetics. A confused look sets in which prompts me to explain that melanoma is a type of skin cancer, and that some people’s genetic makeup renders them more susceptible. The confused expression then changes to one of astonishment, and along comes the remark, “Wow, that’s complicated stuff!”

Perhaps it is human nature for people to avoid “complicated stuff” that does not interest them. Those of us who work in the field at least find this “stuff” interesting. However, we sometimes find that explaining our work to the general public is more “complicated” than doing the “stuff” itself. Explaining a concept that we take for granted can mean going all the way back to the basics. This, of course, takes way too long. Just the thought of teaching Genetics 101 in two minutes makes us lab rats cringe.

But we know better. We know that the whole driving force behind our work is the quest for knowledge. Genetics is all about the transmission of the information that encodes life. It affects many areas of society: many types of food and raw materials for clothing have been bred or engineered through centuries; the fields of biotechnology and forensics would be drastically different today without the formulation of numerous genetic concepts. In the case of medical genetics, new discoveries have the potential to decrease disease-related morbidity and mortality… (That just means reduce suffering and death, excuse my lapse into scientific jargon).

Indeed, the language and strategies that we use to communicate to people who do not have a science background can lend support to the “complicated stuff” myth. It is true that genetics and other scientific fields have amassed a vast amount of knowledge, and can seem extremely difficult for those outside the fields to understand. Nevertheless, just as one would not expect a new learner of a language to understand a literary masterpiece, we as scientists must also make the audience feel interested in the topic, explain it to them in a language they comprehend, and help them realize its significance.

I have given presentations on genetic testing to high school biology students as well as informal counselling to a lady regarding the breast cancer genetic testing procedures she was about to undergo. The high school students showed varying degrees of enthusiasm, but the lady was definitely eager to learn more. Genetic testing was a procedure that the lady was neither familiar nor comfortable with, and she could not understand how having her blood drawn would reveal the status of her BRCA genes. Whether she liked to learn genetics or not, the subject mattered to her and her children because she was personally affected. She and I had a defined “area of interest” (genetic testing) that allowed an active conversation in which concepts became clear. On the other hand, the high school students probably did not feel that the topic was relevant for them unless they themselves or their close relatives were affected by a serious genetics condition. The level of enthusiasm and interest could have related to whether the students had chosen to learn or been required by parents or teachers to enrol in the biology course. If the latter case was true, then it is essential that the parents or teachers stimulate interest and demonstrate the subject’s relevance to the students.

In modern society, each field (scientific or not) has its own set of terminology. A word by-word formal definition of the vocabulary followed by textbook style “factoids” is often considered the “traditional” and “proper” way to start, but can be boring and unproductive. Illustrating how different concepts and terms are incorporated into the big picture is often a more effective strategy that leads to better understanding. For example, a typical review article from Nature Reviews journal contain these elements: (1) the main body of text describes the most recent progress; (2) key terms are defined in the margin so as not to interrupt the flow of the text; (3) boxes present information that is familiar to researchers in the field but new to others; and (4) a summary highlights the major points of the article. These characteristics can be integrated in any visual presentation (such as posters or pamphlets) of genetics for non-geneticists, or even in problem-based learning strategies at high school or introductory university level courses.

Another useful strategy is to use analogies and real life examples—carefully. In many North American cities, “general public” is a poor term that does not adequately take into account the diversity within. An expert may be very familiar with an object, but not everyone comes from the same cultural or religious background, and is familiar with the same things. A real life example is only useful if everyone in the audience can relate to it. One of the components of the introductory genetics course I teach is the concept of biochemical pathways. A mutation in a gene can often lead to a non-functional enzyme, which in turn leads to a blockage in a biochemical pathway, and the accumulation of intermediates. Students sometimes get too caught up in the names of precursors and intermediates, and miss the real point of relating a mutation to its effects on a biological system. Nevertheless, everyone knows what pasta is, and almost everyone had vividly remembers the blackout in August 2003. I joked that they would not have dinner (final product) even if they received a load of dry pasta (supplement of intermediates) since they did not have the means (the enzyme) to cook it. Ding! They got it. Their smiles assured me. The “stuff” was not so complicated after all.

Occasionally, science reporters from local newspapers try to bridge the gap between the lay person and the research community. Misuse of terminology aside, the scariest “excitement” occurs when they announce the discovery of the miracle therapeutic target just because a small part of an elaborate cellular pathway has been elucidated. Then it becomes the poor doctor’s turn to cringe when the patient shows up with the newspaper clipping and demanded the miracle treatment. We as members of the scientific community must communicate the knowledge and its significance accurately to avoid such misconception and creation of false hope.

If the audience were told that genetics happens within every one of them, they may begin to realize its relevance. Even then, capturing their attention is only the beginning of genetics education that will allow the public to become more knowledgeable and to make informed decisions. Delivering the material in an interesting manner to a broad audience is a delicate art. Nevertheless, if the scientific community is capable of deciphering the human genome, surely we can “uncomplicate” this “stuff” to our fellow human beings.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the staff and all my past and present students in the “General and Human Genetics” course (HMB265H), and the directors and speakers at the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program (TATP) and the “Teaching in Higher Education” course (THE500H) at the University of Toronto for enriching my teaching experiences. Special thanks to Jennifer Loo, Justin Kim, and Lillian Lee for helpful comments for this manuscript.

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