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National DNA Day commemorates the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003 and the discovery of the double helix of DNA in 1953. This year's DNA Day was on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. We encouraged teachers and students around the world to celebrate by participating in the American Society of Human Genetics' (ASHG) 12th Annual DNA Day Essay Contest!

This contest is open to students in grades 9-12 worldwide and asks students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in genetics. Essays are expected to be well-reasoned arguments indicative of a depth of understanding of the concepts related to the essay question. They are evaluated by ASHG members through three rounds of scoring.

1st Place Winner:

$1,000 for student
$1,000 genetics materials grant

2nd Place Winner:

$600 for student
$600 genetics materials grant

3rd Place Winner:

$400 for student
$400 genetics materials grant

Honorable Mention: 11 student prizes of $100 each

2017 Question

In the early 1990s, gene therapy was hailed as a potential treatment or cure for many genetic diseases and conditions. Unfortunately, problems during clinical trials, including the death of a patient due to a fatal immune reaction, forced scientists to re-think their strategies. Recent advances in biology have made gene therapy more promising than ever and expanded the field beyond its original concept of providing an additional, functional copy of a malfunctioning gene to specific cells. Choose one modern example of gene therapy (since 2005), describe the disease or condition researchers are attempting to treat, and explain how the therapy/approach might repair the underlying cause of the disease or condition.

  1. Essays will be accepted from high school students (grades 9-12) in the U.S. and internationally. A teacher or administrator must submit the essay and authenticate that the submission is the original work of the student. Essays must be the product of an individual student's work; group submissions are not permitted. Parents may submit the essays of home-schooled students only. Only one entry may be submitted for each student.

  3. All essays must be written in English and are limited to 750 words, including in-text citations. Essay titles are optional and will be counted towards the word limit. Reference lists do not count toward the 750 word limit.

  5. Each teacher may only submitsix student essays per class, for up to three classes.

  7. Essays must be submitted electronically through the ASHG submission site no later than 5:00 pm EST on March 10, 2017. The ASHG submission site opened on January 4, 2017. Essays mailed, faxed, or emailed to the Society will NOT be accepted. Once submitted, essays cannot be changed or revised.

  9. The text of student essays must be original prose unless quotations are explicitly noted.  Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If plagiarism is suspected during any point of the contest, ASHG's Citation and Attribution Review Board will examine the essay in question. Essays found to contain the uncited work of others will be disqualified, and the student’s teacher will be notified. This video from Carteret Community College Library gives a great overview of what constitutes plagiarism.



  1. Essays must include at least one reference.  References must be clearly documented with both in-text citations and in the references list (the reference list should be separately entered into the “References” section of the submission page). Students may use either APA or MLA style for citing references. There is no restriction on how many references students may use. Quality of references will be considered by judges when scoring.  General references such as Wikipedia are considered low-quality, whereas primary literature from research journals (see is considered high-quality.

  3. Only classroom teachers are eligible for the equipment grant. Teachers of first-place winners from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 are not eligible for equipment grants in 2017.

  5. Follow the rubric below to help craft your essay. Judges use this rubric to evaluate every essay in the second and third round of judging.


Overall accuracy of the genetics content


Use of evidence in support of an argument/answer; essay well-focused on the question/topic selected


Writing quality (clear thesis, composition, grammar, syntax, spelling)


References and citations (quality and appropriateness)


Total points possible:


Please note that text from essays may be used for research purposes to identify misconceptions, misunderstandings, and areas of student interest in genetics. Student text may be published on the ASHG Web site, newsletter or in other ASHG-supported publications.

Summarized below are some of the most common issues judges flag in reading submitted essays. Note that judges, rather than student essays, are quoted below to obscure the identity of the essay in reference.  

  1. A focus on details to the detriment of demonstrating a clear understanding of the big picture. Judges are much more forgiving of errors in details than errors in fundamental concepts and larger ideas.   
    Example: "Got the small facts right and the big ones wrong."
  2. Sweeping and grandiose overstatements of the current/future state and/or utility of biotechnology or biomedical science. 
    Example: "It's concerning that this student believes gene therapy is a 'prevalent medical cure for deadly diseases.'"
  3. Inaccuracy in technical language.
    Example: "The student confuses genes and alleles."
  4. Description of phenomena or advances with no explicit argument connecting them to the question.
    Example: "Student does not link the discovery of the DNA double-helix structure to the development of microarrays, DNA fingerprinting, and probe technology. The student simply describes all four of these things."
  5. Misunderstanding the nature of a scientific advancement.
    Example: "Cites Watson and Crick as discovering DNA rather than the structure of DNA."
  6. Lack of in-text citations in general, or lack of citations for information that is not considered common knowledge. In the latter case, students often make wild, unsupported claims that may be tempered if they must find references to support their information.
    Example: "Many good references are listed but the information in the essay has no citations - not even information that is highly technical. Lack of citations is inappropriate, leaving the reader to surmise or guess at the source."
  7. Using out-of-date references.  Scientific understandings change very rapidly, and references that are more than five years old are likely to espouse outdated ideas.
    Example: "One concern I have with this essay (reason for rating references low) is that a reference from 2001 is used. Genomic medicine changes so rapidly that many publications from 2-3 years ago are outdated, never mind 12 years ago!"
  8. Using too many quotes.  Although occasional use is warranted, too many quotes lead judges to think the author has no thoughts of their own.
    Example: "Although this essay is well-written, most of the essay contains sentences directly quoted from the references rather than the student describing the facts in his/her own words. I could not determine if the student understood the content."

Submission window is now closed

Check out the links below for excerpts from past winners' essays!

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