Meet Robin Williamson, Teacher and GENE Network Member

Posted By: Evelyn Mantegani, Manager, Public Engagement, Communications and Marketing, ASHG

Robin Williamson, PhD
Robin Williamson, PhD

Dr. Robin Williamson is a member of the GENE Network and Public Education and Awareness Committee. She graduated from the University of Rochester in 1998 with a major in biochemistry and minors in chemistry and American Sign Language. She then earned her PhD in genetics from Harvard University in 2005. During graduate school, she became an active member of the American Society of Human Genetics, and after graduation, she had the opportunity to stay in Boston and serve as the Deputy Editor of the American Journal of Human Genetics from 2005 until 2011. With an interest in project management, she then moved to Rockville, Maryland where she worked for the management consultant firm Booz Allen Hamilton and supported military health research organizations. While at Booz Allen, she received her project management professional (PMP) certification and was able to use that training when she later returned to the University of Rochester as a project manager supporting a neuromedicine research consortium. Recently, in March 2018, she decided to pursue her Masters in secondary science education at the Warner School of Education, and she now teaches 7th grade science at Gates Chili Middle School near Rochester, New York.

ASHG: What made you want to be a teacher?

Dr. Williamson: There are so many things I want to try, and as I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I decided it was time to focus on teaching. My sister has been an elementary school teacher for 20 years. With her love and skill, she has been a positive influence on so many little people. I usually joke that I would finish work so proud of a cool spreadsheet I had made, and my sister would be talking about teaching a kid how to read. I, of course, love my spreadsheets, but I thought that I would love a chance to make such a difference in students’ lives. In addition, being able to understand scientific data and processes is becoming more important in people’s everyday decisions. I want to support students’ ability to think analytically so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.

ASHG: What was the most difficult and most gratifying part of becoming a teacher?

Dr. Williamson: I think the students are the most difficult and the most gratifying part of becoming a teacher for me.

I have only been teaching for two years, and neither of those years has been “normal,” so I am still learning a lot. I have worked in various jobs with various types of people, but I have never before had a job that involves supporting, motivating, loving, listening to, organizing, disciplining, and also designing ways to teach 120 other people who may or may not be interested in being in class. Students are dealing with all sorts of stressors and emotions each day, and the range of abilities and engagement changes constantly. To me, being able to provide what every student needs can feel like an overwhelming task.

All that being said, the students are of course my main reason for being a teacher. I love the relationships I have built with students, and listening to them excitedly tell me about what they did over the weekend can cheer up a Monday morning. I am so proud to be teaching them how to learn and maybe even inspiring their interest in science. And, most importantly, I take it very seriously that for at least some of them, I am a constant source of love and support each day.

ASHG: How can scientists create relationships with teachers?

Dr. Williamson: I think the most productive way scientists can create relationships with teachers is to develop long-term relationships with teachers in their communities. Offering or accepting to do a one-time presentation on a specific topic is a great way to form an initial connection. Through that first interaction, I suggest also offering to provide input on lessons on other topics, insight into real-world applications of the science covered in the curriculum, views into life as a scientist, and opportunities for the students to see scientists at work. Teachers are balancing about 4 million different things all the time, so they will not always be able to jump at your offer right away; however, someday when they are planning a unit, they might realize, “it would be great if I could use more information about this!” Check back in every few months and expect to provide support in small steps over time.

ASHG: What resources do teachers need most from scientists?

Dr. Williamson: I think two useful resources that scientists can provide are: Information about what being a scientist is like and Real-life context and details about content in the science curriculum.

Even as a university student in a science major, I did not really know what it would mean to become a scientist. I did not have a great idea about the different types of jobs scientists have. Students can pretty comfortably picture doctors and astronauts, but they likely will not think of many other science jobs or what a day in the life of a scientist is like. I think giving the students a chance to talk to a scientist not only teaches them about the job but also teaches them how scientists are just like the other people in their lives. And, the students love learning about both the personal and work lives of scientists. During one of my webinars with a post-doc from NASA, students loved seeing pictures of her lab but also loved hearing about her dogs playing in the snow. In addition, I think working with outside scientists is an opportunity to increase diverse representation in my classroom. I am not an expert on the topic; however, I do recommend openly discussing ways to diversify the races, ethnicities, genders, religions, cultures, backgrounds, etc. students see in science.

Often students love to ask the age-old question, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Even when I have worked hard to build a unit around a real-life example that I know well, the connection does not always resonate with all of the students. I think providing real-life context and details about content can help teachers develop lessons and projects that are meaningful and engaging for students. Teachers will have varying levels of expertise on various topics, so sometimes they might need clarification of confusing details, they might need to brainstorm project ideas, and they might also ask, “Why is this important?” Scientists can support teachers by having these discussions.

ASHG: What’s your favorite activity or piece of information to share with your classes?

Dr. Williamson: My favorite thing to teach this year has been about viral infections, the immune system, and vaccines. These topics were not officially part of our curriculum, but students, families, and teachers had so many questions that needed to be addressed. One significant thing I learned was that we scientists focused explaining so much on what vaccines do and what mRNA does, but we did not think about the fact that many people do not understand what an infection is. During a discussion with students about immunity, I realized that they did not know what a virus actually does in their bodies. Without that understanding, they were missing the context for why having the virus was a problem and what getting rid of the virus really meant. It’s important to evaluate how much knowledge a group has about a given topic and then begin the discussion there.

ASHG: Is there anything students want to know more about in human genetics/genomics that you aren’t able to cover on the syllabus?

Dr. Williamson: I think the most common topic that students want to know about that is not specifically covered in the middle school genetics curriculum is complex traits. Many of the traits students want to learn about (e.g., skin color, hair texture, height) are not Mendelian. We learn how to predict genotypes and phenotypes using Punnett squares, and students ask how that works for the traits they care about. I think it is important to teach about complex traits as well so that they understand that the genetics they are learning about is relevant to what they are interested in.

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

Dr. Williamson: I still often hear the words of my high school English teacher in my head. To encourage us to participate in class discussion, she said, “Who cares if you are wrong?” Thirty years later, remembering her saying that brings tears to my eyes. I was always a diligent student who worked hard to figure things out and know the right answers, but she instilled in me the freedom to explore topics I was less sure of. She did not mean that there was never a right or wrong answer. She was teaching us that we would learn best if we formed an idea, listened to other information about the idea, reviewed our idea again, and then revised our thoughts based on the discussion and new data. She was teaching us that it was ok not to know the answers as long as we were willing to learn more about them. Not only was this a great foundation for scientific thought, but it has shaped my entire life of learning.

ASHG: What’s the one thing you want the public to know about human genetics?

Dr. Williamson: I am going to cheat and say something about science in general. This past 16 months has made it clear that a good portion of the public has a strong distrust of science and scientists. I would love the public to better understand the scientific process and to know that most scientists are motivated by the goal of making people’s lives better. And, although the process is not perfect, the scientific process works to provide guidance and best practices based on data and facts. Sometimes this means being overly cautious when little is known, and sometimes this means revising previous ideas as we learn more. I think that increased interaction with scientists throughout education and other activities can improve this understanding.

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