BETHESDA, MD - In commemoration of National DNA Day, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) hosted its 10th Annual DNA Day Essay Contest to encourage high school students and teachers to learn about human genetics concepts beyond the standard curriculum. This year, ASHG awarded first place to David Yang, a junior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J. Sagan Ghim, a sophomore at the Oregon Health and Sciences University high school program in Portland, Ore., won second place in the contest. Jacob Mueller, a senior at McNary High School in Keizer, Ore., and Brian Lue, a senior at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas, tied for third place.
"As genetics proves to be increasingly complex, this year's essays show that students are able to keep up with new discoveries and maintain a sophisticated understanding of how the human genome works," said Michael Dougherty, PhD, Director of Education for ASHG. "The quality of their writing and ideas speaks well for the next generation of scientists and informed citizens."
National DNA Day, celebrated annually on April 25, commemorates the discovery of DNA's double helix structure and the completion of the Human Genome Project, two key milestones in the field of genetics. Each year since 2006, ASHG has run a DNA Day Essay Contest to challenge students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in human genetics by writing an original essay. Winning essays use well-reasoned arguments to show a grasp of topics that are not always well-covered in high school biology courses.
This year, the contest invited students to consider how the definition of a gene has evolved in recent decades. When researchers isolated the first gene in 1969, genes were thought to be discrete, contiguous segments of DNA, each of which coded for a specific protein product. "Since then, scientists have greatly enriched our understanding of how the human genome is structured and regulated, and the traditional definition of a gene has expanded to include factors affecting molecular processes, structures, and products," said Dr. Dougherty. Contest entrants were asked to describe three specific examples of this phenomenon in the human genome.
Students from 37 U.S. states and 17 countries submitted essays to the contest this year. Human genetics specialists belonging to ASHG and its leadership read and evaluated entries for their scientific accuracy, creativity, and overall writing quality. "This year marks the 10th anniversary of the DNA Day essay contest, which for many students is their first real exposure to genetics research and the scientific literature," said Joseph D. McInerney, MS, Executive Vice President of ASHG. "Through this contest and other ASHG educational initiatives, we hope to encourage young people to study human genetics and enter genetics-related careers."
ASHG will award monetary prizes to winning students as well as their teachers. Yang - whose essay described examples of alternative splicing, a process by which the same stretch of DNA and its complementary messenger RNA can be spliced together in different ways and thus be translated into different proteins - will receive a $1000 prize. His science teacher, Dr. Judith Pinto, will receive a $1000 grant from ASHG to purchase new genetics laboratory equipment for the biology classrooms at Bergen County Academies. Ghim, whose essay described defects in alternative splicing associated with neurological diseases and cancer, will receive a $600 prize, and her science teachers, Dr. Richard Rosenbaum and Dr. Tammy Martin, will receive a $600 grant for genetics materials. Lue, whose essay described the regulation of alternative splicing and how defects in this process can cause disease, and Mueller, whose essay described examples of alternatively spliced proteins coded by the same gene with different functions that act in different cells, will each receive a $400 prize, and their science teachers, Dr. Martina Davies and Mrs. Jessica Graham respectively, will each receive a $400 grant for genetics materials.
Honorable mentions were awarded to ten students, each of whom will receive a $100 monetary prize. The recipients of honorable mentions, listed alphabetically, are:
- Daria Beatini, a junior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J.
- Jennifer Chen, a sophomore at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md.
- Arthur Dennis, a junior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J.
- Alex Dent, a junior at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wis.
- Thomas Ferrante, a junior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J.
- Isabella Li, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, N.C.
- Rick Li, a sophomore at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Ill.
- Sarah Link, a senior at Eureka High School in Eureka, Mo.
- Paul Slaughter, a junior at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wis.
- Dennis Yatunin, a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, N.Y.
The European Society of Human Genetics, which partners with ASHG on several initiatives, ran a similar essay contest this year, also aimed at high school students.
For details on the 2015 contest winners, including photos and excerpts from winning essays, see: http://www.