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Major genomics exhibit, staffed with Stanford volunteers, now open in San Jose

Abbey Thompson, a Stanford PhD candidate, gives tour of Genome exhibit at the The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose on Wednesday, February 4, 2015. ( Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford School of Medicine )

Last week I checked out the museum exhibit “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” which just arrived at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

Created to honor the 10-year anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project by the National Institutes of Health and the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibit’s goal is to demystify the science of genetics. It includes demonstrations of the equipment used in sequencing the human genome, videos about the practical and ethical implications of having your own genome sequences, and interactive exhibits that let you explore which genetically-determined characteristics — like hair color or even being lactose intolerant — you might have. There is a section devoted to determining ancestry from your DNA; it turns out that we humans all hail from east Africa.

The part of exhibit I can't get out of my mind was made up of transparent cylinders filled with sand. It was a comparison of the genomes of different species. We humans are, of course, a complex species and so is our genome, with 20,000 genes. But amoebas and barley (yes, the grain) have bigger genomes than we do!

Volunteer docents, many from the Stanford genetics community, are ready to answer questions from visitors of all ages. Michael Cherry, PhD, professor of genetics, has trained as a docent for the exhibit. Members of his lab team have volunteered, too.

“It is good for us to learn how to communicate our science to the general public — to explain things that seem basic to us,” Cherry said in an Inside Stanford Medicine article I wrote on the exhibit. “Visitors tell us what is important to them; they stimulate us.”

The Tech Museum and Stanford’s Genetics Department have a long-term relationship. For more than a decade, the department has sponsored Stanford at the Tech, a program that aims to explain the science of genetics to the general public.

“It is so critical that we reach the public,” Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics told me. “We are undergoing a genetics revolution, where everyone can get their DNA sequence determined, and it will transform the way medicine is practiced.”

Led by Barry Starr, PhD, director of outreach activities for the genetics department, Stanford at the Tech helped construct one of the museum’s permanent exhibits, called “Genetics: Technology With a Twist.” The program trains graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to work as docents who answer questions and lead hands-on activities, such as DNA extraction.

“I teach kids about DNA,” said Miguel Mata, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, a docent who recently was helping children view the DNA in their own cells. “We can show the kids that under a microscope we’re all the same — a collection of cells that has meaning and purpose.”

“Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” opened Jan. 22 and runs through April 27.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford at the Tech releases book version of popular ‘Ask a Geneticist’ website and Don’t it make your brown eyes green
Photo, of Stanford graduate student/museum docent Abbey Thompson, by Norbert von der Groeben

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