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10th Annual DNA DAY Essay Contest

Where Are They Now?

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of ASHG’s DNA Day Essay Contest, we reached out to 10 past winners and caught up with them on their activities since winning the contest. How did the contest affect their interests and careers, and what advice do they have for current high school students? Leading up to the opening of this year’s submission site on January 15, 2015, we will be posting two new articles each week.

Teachers: Come back weekly for the latest stories and consider sharing these with your students who are interested in pursuing science.


Click the plus signs below to read each winner’s story.

Name: Lindsay Michalski   [+]

Currently: First-year graduate student in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis

DNA Day Prize:
1st place in 2007, while in 11th grade at Troy Athens High School in Troy, Michigan

DNA Day Question:
If you were a genetics researcher, what would you like to study (and why)?


When Lindsay Michalski entered the DNA Day essay contest eight years ago, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue in college or as a career. Interestingly, her choice of essay topic – the potential of pharmacogenomics to help doctors treat and prevent complex conditions such as bipolar disorder – provided a good clue.


“The contest sparked a peripheral interest in genetics,” Lindsay recalls, but it took her a few years to find her sweet spot. “I was not too focused when I entered college [at Duke University], but I discovered an interest in psychology,” she says. When searching for an undergraduate research position, the best fit ended up being a neurogenetics lab where she met her current supervisor, Ryan Bogdan, then a postdoctoral student. A few years later, Dr. Bogdan started his own lab at Washington University in St. Louis, and Lindsay accepted a position as Lab Manager after graduating from Duke. In fall 2014, she began her own graduate work in the same lab.


Neurogenetics has evolved as a field in the past decade, Lindsay notes. “When I wrote my DNA Day essay, neurogenetics was mostly linking candidate genes to differences in behavior. Now,” she says, “we’re looking at many genes together.” She is currently studying the aggregated effects of tens of thousands of genetic variants on neural risk factors that predict bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.


Looking back, she says, “genetics is a tough subject for someone of high school age to grasp, but we have so much more information now. High schoolers now have a better sense of what’s possible through neurogenetics research. They realize that most genetic variants have very small effects and that it’s unlikely, for example, that we will ever identify ‘a gene for bipolar disorder’.”


Read Lindsay Michalski’s essay

Name: Elena Kim Perry [+]

Currently: Fourth-year undergraduate at Yale University, majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

DNA Day Prize:
1st place in 2007, while in 9th grade at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland

DNA Day Question:
In what ways will knowledge of genetics and genomics make changes to health and health care in the US possible?


“I’d always been someone who was interested in science, but the DNA Day essay contest was my first time thinking about biotechnology and research,” says Elena Perry, who wrote her 2007 essay on the implications of genetic and genomic research on healthcare. Soon after winning the contest, she began a research internship at the National Institute of Mental Health, the first of many research positions in a variety of labs.

“I sort of bounced through many fields and took time to find what really excited me,” she recalls. That elusive interest turned out to be – of all things – dung beetles. “While I was studying abroad doing a language program in Korea, I interned in a lab and really liked my work searching for antifungal and antimicrobial compounds in cultures extracted from dung beetles,” she said.

This project sparked an interest in microbiology as well as the chemical biology techniques used in this kind of research, both of which Elena plans to pursue in graduate school next year. Since then, she has studied antibiotic compounds and other metabolic products extracted from microbes, including some that show activity against drug-resistant E. coli

When asked for her advice to high school students interested in science, Elena counsels them to think about what excites them before choosing a specialty. “I would encourage them not to lock themselves into one niche too soon and to take time to explore,” she said.

Read Elena Perry’s essay

Name: Briana Skalski [+]


Currently: First-year pharmacy student at Temple University School of Pharmacy

DNA Day Prize: 2nd place in 2008, while in 12th grade at Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware


DNA Day Question: If you were a genetics researcher, what would you like to study and why?


Throughout her high school and undergraduate career, Briana Skalski has learned the importance of staying true to herself and the subjects she cares most about. Seven years ago, she entered the DNA Day essay contest as part of a school assignment, but chose to focus on a topic that mattered to her: the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease. “Alzheimer’s is in my family, so it was personal,” she reflects. “If you go with a topic that relates to you, the essay speaks for itself.”


Later that year, she began studying chemistry at Lafayette College, and eventually switched to biochemistry to be more versatile. “My original plan was to go to medical school and study radiology, but I became fascinated by how molecules interact with the body,” Briana explained.


During the next few years, she did multiple pharmacy-related internships, including one project that used data from an online database where patients documented their symptoms and the side effects of medication. As part of this project, she surveyed the general public and interviewed people, which sparked an interest in the retail side of pharmacy. Plus, she says, “I’m a people person and I like counseling patients.”


Interestingly, Briana was still planning on medical school at the time. “While I was premed,” she recalls, “I didn’t realize I was creating a future for myself in pharmacy through the research and internships I was doing.” Now a first-year pharmacy student at Temple University, she also works in a compounding pharmacy and focuses on scar, pain, and hormone creams. This position involves a lot of work with insurance coverage authorizations, which provides the opportunity to help patients get the treatment they need.


Briana advises current high school students to explore their interests fully. “Be open to absolutely anything – there’s tons of possibilities for you out there,” she says.


Read Briana Skalski’s essay

Name: Mehera Emrich [+]


Currently: Fourth-year student in bachelor’s/master’s degree program at the University of Oxford, majoring in Biochemistry


DNA Day Prize: 1st place in 2009, while in 11th grade at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California


DNA Day Question: Some traits come in two varieties (for example, Mendel’s round and wrinkled peas with the green and yellow colors). Do all traits for all species come in only two varieties? Justify your answer by explaining the relationship between genes and traits.


Mehera Emrich has been interested in science for years, but it was a high school course in biotechnology that really sparked her interest in genetics. “The class had a lot of discussion of cloning and genetic engineering, and I enjoyed thinking about the ethics of these issues,” she explains. It was around that time that she entered the DNA Day essay contest as part of a school assignment, and won first place. “The essay was a mandatory assignment, so I was not that happy about it at first, but it turned out well,” she remembers, laughing.


After graduating high school the following spring, she decided to take a year off before college, which she spent researching RNA polymerase in a lab at the University of Oregon. After that, Mehera enrolled in a four-year, bachelor’s and master’s degree program at the University of Oxford. “I wanted a different cultural experience,” she says, “and I appreciated how focused the study is in the UK, with more in-depth learning and fewer general classes.”


She stayed involved in research while taking biochemistry classes, completing a summer project on epigenetics in plant development. Now in her final year at Oxford, Mehera spends most of her time in the lab studying DNA repair in the model organism Dictyostelium, a slime mold with proteins that may inform human cancer research.


She advises current high school students to remain open to opportunities. “There’s so much we don’t know yet and so much more to learn. Think outside the box, be creative, and try to have fun with it,” she says.


Read excerpts of Mehera Emrich’s essay

Name: Laura Molina [+]


Currently: Fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Florida, majoring in Biochemistry


DNA Day Prize: 2nd place in 2009, while in 10th grade at Viera High School in Melbourne, Florida


DNA Day Question: Some traits come in two varieties (for example, Mendel’s round and wrinkled peas with the green and yellow colors). Do all traits for all species come in only two varieties? Justify your answer by explaining the relationship between genes and traits.


When Laura Molina took Advanced Placement Biology in tenth grade, she knew she had found her calling. “Genetics and cell biology were what I loved the most because they were so complex – it’s like there’s a whole universe inside a tiny cell, and this was my first glimpse into that world,” she remembers. As part of an assignment for that AP Biology class, Laura entered the DNA Day essay contest, which in 2009 addressed the relationship between genes and traits.


This fairly broad topic gave her a chance to learn more on her own about a topic of her choice, she notes. “It was a way for us to look at what we were interested in and turn that interest into something more productive.” Since then, Laura has worked in a biophysical chemistry lab, which she credits with providing a good foundation in lab technique and professional experience in presenting her work at conferences. She also conducted research in a cell biology lab during an exchange program in France.


“The more I learn, the more I realize how much we have left to discover and that’s what has kept me coming back,” Laura reflects. “It’s been a long road but definitely worth it, and I love what I do.” After graduating, she plans to enroll in an MD/PhD program with a PhD in cell biology and an MD specializing in a related field such as oncology, pathology, or infectious disease. Eventually, she wants to pursue academic medicine, doing both clinical work and related research.


In hindsight, she says, “biology is the perfect field for someone who is just starting out and doesn’t know exactly what they want to do. There is so much opportunity in fields like medicine, environmental science, or biotechnology, and there’s something for everyone to be interested in.” Laura notes that genetics can be daunting because the field is so complex. Her advice? “Take it as a challenge to be excited about, not as an obstacle to be afraid about.”


Read excerpts of Laura Molina’s essay

Name: Sharon Hartzell [+]

Currently: First-year graduate student in Environmental Science & Technology at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

DNA Day Prize:
3rd place in 2009, while in 11th grade at Chenango Forks High School in Binghamton, New York

DNA Day Question:
What is (are) the cause(s) of human health and disease? Explain your answer using one or more specific examples.


When Sharon Hartzell entered the DNA Day essay contest in 2009, she says, “I was excited to find an opportunity to combine my fascination with science and my love of writing.” In her essay, she described how the interactions between genes and the environment affect human health and disease, concluding that these environmental influences on gene activity allow people to protect their own well-being by cultivating healthy habits.


In the years since then, she has continued to explore science and writing in deeper, more specific ways. “I took AP Biology in tenth grade, and that sparked my interest in science,” she recalls. “The next year, I took a geology class, which addressed climate change and the overexploitation of fossil fuels – huge issues in science and society that I realized I wanted to be engaged with in any way possible.”


Sharon continued studying environmental science and chemistry as an undergraduate at William and Mary, blogging for the sustainability blog Hark Upon the Green and pursuing her growing interest in environmental health and justice. “It evolved from a scientific interest to wanting to make people’s lives better,” she explains. Now, as a first-year graduate student in environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland, she is researching contamination in the nearby Chesapeake Bay, with a focus on how the environment in Baltimore Harbor affects ecosystem and human health. She has also continued writing, and currently blogs for Backyard Talk, a blog on environmental policy, health, and research run by the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment and Justice.


“I’ve found that one of my favorite things about environmental research – and one of the most frustrating aspects of it, too – is how complicated it is. Compared to chemistry experiments in the laboratory, there are so many more factors you can’t control,” she says. Sharon urges students interested in science to embrace that complexity and the overlap between different scientific fields. “Writing is a great way to understand how science interacts with other aspects of society,” she adds.

Read excerpts of Sharon Hartzell’s essay

Name: Anthony Arena [+]


Currently: First-year dental student at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine


DNA Day Prize: 3rd place in 2010, while in 11th grade at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey


DNA Day Question: Scientists can now determine the complete DNA sequences of organisms, including humans. Now that the milestone has been reached, is there a reason to continue learning about Mendel, alleles, and inheritance patterns? Explain your answer.


Anthony Arena found his calling when he was 12 years old. “I was in the seventh grade and had to do a science fair project, and I decided to do one on teeth, so I went to my dentist to ask him some questions,” he recalls. “After the project, I was hooked and started shadowing him at his office. Until then, I hadn’t thought of it as a career.” He continued shadowing his dentist, Jeffrey Powell, during weekends and summers over the next several years, and his interest in dentistry grew stronger.


During high school, Anthony supplemented this experience with community service at a hospital and research experience studying biofilms on teeth, a project that included genetics work and provided a good base knowledge of the subject. Around the same time, he wrote his DNA Day essay on the use of stem cells in orthodontic research.


Ultimately, though, he says, “research didn’t appeal to me much because of the lack of personal connection. In dentistry, you’re not just using your knowledge of biological science, but you’re also seeing and treating patients and it’s very hands-on. The satisfaction of that is very important to me.” After finishing high school, Anthony began a seven-year program that included three years of undergraduate study at Ramapo College followed by four years of dental school at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine. 


Anthony urges future DNA Day essay writers to use the contest as a starting point to explore their interests. “Find something you really care about,” he advises. “Dentistry appealed to me because I love biology and I love people.”


Read excerpts of Anthony Arena’s essay

Name: Josephine (Josie) Benson [+]


Currently: Second-year undergraduate at Brown University, Undeclared Major (Pre-med)


DNA Day Prize: 1st place in 2011, while in 10th grade at Bowling Green High School in Bowling Green, Ohio


DNA Day Question: In 2010, a major discovery in genetics research found that the DNA of some modern humans contains small amounts of Neanderthal DNA. Briefly explain this finding and discuss its relevance to human ancestry and evolution.


Josie Benson entered the DNA Day essay contest on a whim. At the time, she was a tenth-grader with a general interest in science but no specialized experience. “I was surprised and honored to win,” she said. “I wasn’t an expert in genetics and worried that the judges wanted very technical writing.” But her essay on Neanderthal DNA findings and human evolution was lively, clear, and informative, and these principles stayed with her as she discovered an interest in medical and science communication.


Four years later, Josie is exploring this interest in several different ways. She is currently an editorial intern for Brown Medicine, a magazine for alumni of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She also creates scripts for SciToons, a series of animated videos on a variety of scientific concepts. In addition, she recently won the Society for the History of Discoveries’ yearly essay contest with an essay on the development of germ theory, which she presented at the SHD Annual Meeting in October 2014. After graduating from college, she plans to attend medical school and potentially become a medical or clinical writer.


“When writing about science, don’t use jargon to fit in with the scientists,” Josie advises future DNA Day essay writers. “Instead, use regular language to show that scientists fit in with everyone else and that they’re regular people, too.”


“I’ve heard it said that a paper in Nature is 1500 words long and we don’t understand any of them,” she adds. “The challenge is in the translation.”


Read excerpts of Josephine Benson’s essay

Name: Julia Kroll [+]


Currently: Third-year undergraduate student at Carleton College, majoring in Computer Science


DNA Day Prize: 2nd place in 2011, while in 11th grade at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin


DNA Day Question: A number of companies offer genetic testing directly to consumers, bypassing the involvement of physicians and genetic counselors. Discuss whether you think this is a good idea or not. You might focus on medical, ethical, legal, or social dimensions of this issue.


“Don’t be afraid to explore new areas of science,” advises Julia Kroll, runner-up in the 2011 DNA Day essay contest and currently a third-year student at Carleton College. When she entered college two years after the contest, Julia hadn’t yet chosen a major but was considering the sciences and leaning toward biology or psychology. That changed when she took an introductory computer science class her freshman year – she was hooked.


Later that year, Julia received the Carleton Summer Science Fellowship, a grant funding two summers of research in any college discipline. She spent the summer after her freshman year analyzing how Wikipedia editors selected and cited sources, and the following summer, wrote software to analyze linguistic data in the field of natural language processing. After graduating, she hopes to continue working in computer science, focusing on programming and practical applications rather than theory.


“Genetics is still a subject that interests me, and I’m hoping to take a class on it soon,” Julia says. She notes that computer science is becoming crucial to biological and genetics research, and is especially interested in using technology in health and medicine.


She urges future DNA Day essay entrants to use the contest as an opportunity to take initiative. “Finding what your passion is about the subject will help you develop a more powerful essay,” she suggests. Whatever that passion may be, she adds, “it’s valuable in science to be able to write well and document what you do, for both your peers and future collaborators.”


Read excerpts of Julia Kroll’s essay

Name: Julianna Hsing [+]


Currently: Third-year undergraduate student at Princeton University, majoring in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology with a certificate in Neuroscience


DNA Day Prize: 3rd place in 2011, while in 11th grade at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland


DNA Day Question: A number of companies offer genetic testing directly to consumers, bypassing the involvement of physicians and genetic counselors. Discuss whether you think this is a good idea or not. You might focus on medical, ethical, legal, or social dimensions of this issue.


Julianna Hsing has always enjoyed biology, but her specific topics of interest have evolved over the years. “Originally, when I was in high school and entered the DNA Day contest, I was interested in molecular biology and small-scale, detailed science,” she explains. “Coming to college, my eyes were opened to new topics, and I took a few ecology courses that sparked my interest in the macro aspects of biology.” A premed student, she is currently planning her senior thesis, a year-long research project that will focus on understanding how animals interact with their environments by using DNA-based diet analyses to examine the causes and effects of variation in animal diets.


Outside of the lab, Julianna spent the past summer doing a clinical internship at Boston Children’s Hospital’s otolaryngology department. Her position included observing surgeries and patient visits, and analyzing medical records to compare the effectiveness of different surgical treatments for a condition called juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma. In addition, she is a nationally certified emergency medical technician (EMT), and since her second year has assisted with emergencies in the Princeton area. “College is where you find yourself and what you’re really interested in,” she says, urging high school students to keep their minds open about career options and try new things.


“It’s also a time to explore interests outside of class,” she adds. For example, having never tried martial arts before college, she joined the Princeton Taekwondo Club and in spring 2014, placed first at the 2014 National Collegiate Championships. “Taekwondo has become a big part of my life. When I’m stressed out from school work, I just do some kicking and punching to relax.”


Read excerpts of Julianna Hsing’s essay

Our Winners Come from Everywhere

Click through the map below to explore the U.S. and international hometowns of our previous winners and honorable mentions.

View DNA Day Essay Contest Past Winners in a full screen map


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