Meet Ellen Quillen, Geneticist and GENE Network Member

Posted By: Evelyn Mantegani, Senior Specialist, Marketing and Communications, ASHG

Dr. Quillen speaks at a local bookshop

Despite not being able to enter the classroom, Ellen Quillen, PhD found a way to continue her relationship with an AP Biology class she connected with through the GENE Network. Initially contacted in 2019 by teacher Leah Cataldo, PhD, Dr. Quillen met for the second year with Dr. Cataldo’s AP Biology class, this time through Zoom from each students’ home. Dr. Cataldo had integrated a TED Talk about skin color by Nina Jablonski, PhD into her curriculum and wanted Dr. Quillen, who had previously published a paper with Dr. Jablonski, to provide insight from a genetics perspective. During their discussion, Dr. Quillen discussed her path to becoming a scientist, reviewed alternative scientific careers, walked through scientific slides she prepared, and spent the rest of the time having a ‘Question and Answer’ with the class. In addition, she highlighted the importance of choosing a college that best fits a students’ needs and career goals. She related this to her quick pivot from a small liberal arts school to a public state school. This pivot set her up to apply to her graduate school program and continue on the path towards her goal of becoming a scientist. As she put it, “Not every great school is great for the direction in which you want to go.” Dr. Quillen’s experience with this AP Biology class may provide ideas for GENE members to connect with classrooms near and far using virtual resources. She even remarked that the discussion went seamlessly, perhaps in part because students are used to using video chats to learn. Her visit demonstrates how blending scientific facts with a personal narrative seeds a valuable conversation which shows students how they can take their next steps to a science career. In addition to this GENE Network activity, she has participated in public engagement and education programs at her post doctorate institution in Texas, teacher training, and speaks at her local non-profit bookstore about the epic history of human pigmentation.

ASHG: How did you begin in public education and engagement?

Dr. Quillen: I started in undergraduate and then graduate school. Girl Scouts would visit our labs and receive badges based on what they did. I was then lucky to be at a series of institutions which provided public education and engagement opportunities and emphasized that education should not solely be for people inside the walls of the respective institutions. Because of this, I was able to step into existing structures and was then able to seek out additional opportunities, such as giving continuing education talks to teachers. Epigenetics was a major topic for these continuing education talks, which isn’t often covered in textbooks but is relevant for students. When I began connecting with communities, it was sometimes nerve-wracking not knowing if I would get pushback on my science. Fortunately, I’ve never had that experience and my experiences have all been very positive. There’s so much thirst for scientific content from all levels of people, from elementary school to retirees. Sharing scientific information with these groups allows me to take a step back and realize that what makes them excited is what made me excited when I began my interest in science. It brings some of the wonder back. It’s also important to combat some of the deterministic ideas some people have about genetics. Those initial understandings need nuance brought to them.

ASHG: How do you make time for public education and engagement?

Dr. Quillen: The leadership at my center values it. I’m also at a medical school which is very aware of the perception from the local community and often considers how to make the medical school and hospital part of the community. Historical issues shape how the community perceives us, science, and medicine. We must consider a patient’s history with science and medicine because it will shape their reception of information and the choices the patient may then make. In terms of medicine, genetics is mostly applied in our cancer center and the pediatrics unit. We’re in the early stages of helping patients understand the promise vs. the common benefits. There’s a broader push in the institution to have these conversations, which makes it okay for me to spend my time doing public engagement and education. Having knowledge is one thing, but sharing knowledge is what we should be doing.

ASHG: What’s one detail or key activity you always like to share?

Dr. Quillen: I always like to talk about ancestry because it’s one way that people interact most with genetics. I’ll do a simple illustration using dots to represent allele frequencies in different countries and compare that to an individual’s alleles. How do we communicate that underlying genetic diversity is important, but we’re predominantly the same? It’s a difficult message to relay and don’t want to risk overstating the importance of differences. I also like to show pictures of skin color variation to demonstrate the question “can you sort people.” Humans consistently draw lines as if we’re discreet groups, but this demonstration shows that skin color is a continuum. You can somewhat reliably distinguish the ends of the continuum, but you can’t identify breaks. I like demonstrating this with skin color because it’s a very visible trait. It’s also important to acknowledge that our skin pigmentation has a purpose that has a biological impact on our health. It’s not there to create groups.

ASHG: What’s the best memory you have of one of your educators when you were a student?

Dr. Quillen: I was 12 when I decided I wanted to be a geneticist. I had a wonderful middle school teacher who took me to a local college so I could dissect a frog, which was the main task I could not do at home. That enabled me to jump ahead a year in my curriculum and start on the sophomore track by the time I got to high school. I put together a four-year plan which required me to take AP Biology and AP Chemistry at the same time. So, the AP Biology teacher gave up his free period to teach just me AP Biology. I was the only student in the class. He retired a couple of years ago, and I was able to send him a letter telling him I used his lessons. I’ve also had a lot of people who welcomed me into their labs when I was an undergraduate student. So much of my approach is paying it forward and making sure that I can spark that interest and give that opportunity to students.

ASHG: What’s one thing you want people to know about genetics?

Dr. Quillen: It’s important to know the influence of genetics because it can help guide future decisions. Our genes are not our destiny, they’re one of many paths which we can go down.

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