TDC member Emily Olfson, MD PhD, interviews Julie Nadel, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Education Fellow
ASHG: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Dr. Nadel: I like hot sauce, my dog, and talking about science. My graduate work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine focused on the non-canonical nucleic acid structure, RNA:DNA hybrids, and their potential influence on gene expression and chromatin structure. However, some of my most important experiences in graduate school occurred outside the lab.
After volunteering for the New York Academy of Sciences After School Mentoring Program, I fell in love with science education. This mentoring program quickly became my favorite part of the week, and I started spending any free time I had volunteering in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, and trying to meet people in the field to learn more about it. Fortunately, ASHG and NHGRI support the perfect fellowship for geneticists like me, and I started the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics and Education Fellowship in October 2016.
ASHG: How did you first become interested in the field of genetics?
Dr. Nadel: Growing up, I always loved math. Genetics was an easy transition because it is like the math of the life sciences. In middle and high school, I enjoyed learning Punnett squares because it provided the opportunity to solve for something, whereas other aspects of the life sciences for that age are based in memorization and regurgitation on a test (although hopefully that is changing). Since before college, I’ve thought about approaches to medicine and research from a genetics perspective.
ASHG: What areas in genetics are you currently enthusiastic about?
Dr. Nadel: There are so many things happening in genetics that are exciting! But, rather than going into all the exciting things happening in genetics, I want to make a request. If you have an area in genetics you are particularly enthusiastic about (CRISPR, space genetics, de-extinction, nanoparticles, direct-to-consumer testing, pharmacogenomics, epigenetics, cheap sequencing technology, DNA as data storage…this list could go on forever), talk to people about it. Find whatever way you can to talk to kids, adults, non-scientists, the public, government–basically anyone and everyone, and get them excited about genetics too. Share your passion and use these conversations to practice your science communication skills. Far too many kids think they have never met a scientist before because we don’t all walk around in lab coats, and then have a hard time breaking their set image of an Albert Einstein character. Tell them you’re a scientist, give them a chance to see how cool you are, and tell them something you think is awesome right now about genetics.
ASHG: Please describe your experience as a Genetics & Education Fellow.
Dr. Nadel: The Genetics and Education Fellowship has been a truly life changing experience. I have been given the opportunity to navigate through the transition from being a bench scientist to an education professional under the guidance and mentoring of some wonderful people. The fellowship is 16 months long, and consists of rotations through NHGRI’s Education and Community Involvement Branch, ASHG’s Education Department, and a third rotation at a public or private organization involved in genetics education of your choosing.
The fellowship is particularly incredible in that there is only one fellow each year, so you experience direct mentoring, professional development, and extensive networking. I have had the chance to observe many different careers and projects through each of the rotations, which has exposed me to genetics education in a variety of settings. For instance, while I was at NHGRI, I helped create a nationwide network of events for National DNA Day, and utilized new social media platforms to engage the public. At ASHG, I was able to exploit my research experience to create a bioinformatics lesson plan for AP biology students. The projects and possibilities are broad and vary depending on the fellow’s interests. If anyone is considering the fellowship, I highly recommend it, and would be happy to talk further about it if you want to apply.
ASHG: What do you think are some of the future challenges and opportunities in genetics education?
Dr. Nadel: I think we’re in a really fun time for K-12 genetics education! As schools embrace computer science in the classroom, classes are turning to bioinformatics to provide students with experience in coding. Genomic data is a perfect fit because there are massive datasets available to explore and students are interested in the field. Through bioinformatics, we have the potential to reach younger students with genetics/genomics, and expose them to authentic skills and processes that scientists use.
As personalized medicine becomes more popular, engagement must also play a huge part of any research project. In designing consent for a study, researchers must consider the participant’s actual level of understanding, and how we can use education to make that consent as thorough as possible
Finally, fortunately, direct-to-consumer genetic testing is gaining popularity because people want to learn more about themselves. Unfortunately, there are still populations who are unfamiliar with the research or have justified mistrust. Education and engagement will be how we work through those problems to reach all populations, so everyone can fully share the benefits of genetics research.
ASHG: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Dr. Nadel: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. I did my third fellowship rotation in New York City because I really love working with the students here. There is such a range of diversity and experiences within one school system, so anything you can find somewhere in the United States probably exists in NYC. I know I want to work in STEM education in NYC for at least a couple years, but after that, I am not entirely sure. I recently read the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer, and I joke that it ruined my life because it really upended what I thought I wanted to do. I am now thinking more about the intersection of education and public health, and how I can make an impact on a more global level to these causes. I would love if 10 years from now I were beginning to break into that path.
ASHG: Do you have any advice for trainees?
Dr. Nadel: The best advice I have for trainees is: If you want to do what your PI does when you grow up, then spend your nights and weekends doing lab work. If you don’t want to be your PI, you need to be spending your “free” time getting experience in the field you want to pursue after your training. There is nothing more heartbreaking to me than when I speak to a trainee interested in taking a non-academic career path, and they have a beautiful list of publications, but no actual experience in their field of interest. That is unfortunately not a competitive resume for a position outside of academia. So, make sure you are taking the time to get additional experiences. Nothing is more satisfying than when you get the chance to do the things you’ve been spending all your “free time” doing as your career.