By Suchismita Chandran

J. Craig Venter Institute Inspires Kids on “Take Your Child to Work Day”

Still excited from the day's events, the group poses with their double helix candy models.

Last month when my kindergarten-aged daughter brought home a note from school to dress up as their future career choice, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her that she aspired to be a scientist just like me. So, we dug through my clothes and found her an old lab coat and decorated the collars with some biology-themed pins. When I heard JCVI was hosting a “take your child to work day” I knew she would be very excited to visit. She and the other children were greeted with hands-on activities meticulously planned by JCVI’s education manager, Sarah Grimshaw. Sixteen elementary and middle school children accompanied their parents to work at the Rockville, MD site to learn about JCVI’s research.

The event included talks and hands-on experiments that were both informational and engaging for the children. JCVI scientists Brett Pickett, PhD and Hernan Lorenzi, PhD described some of the interesting research being conducted at the institute. The children were introduced to the concepts including DNA, nucleus, and the cell. They were especially excited when they were invited to stain the nucleus of human cells themselves and view them under the microscope with me and David Brown, PhD.

To kick off the day Brett Pickett, PhD opened with a genomics primer.
To kick off the day Brett Pickett, PhD opened with a genomics primer.

The highlight of the day may have been when the children actually extracted DNA from strawberries in a tube. The realization that their food is made up of DNA was a thought-provoking fact that they mulled over during lunch. Of course, nothing could top the double helix model of the DNA that they created for dessert with Twizzler candy and marshmallows. The kids were very proud of their DNA art. Peppered through all the DNA activity, the children also learned about bacteria and fungi, and the consequence of personal hygiene through hand-washing experiments with Stephanie Mounaud. They also enjoyed making slime and elephant toothpaste and discussed about the significance of chemical reactions.

Sarah Grimshaw and David Brown, PhD work with the group on extracting DNA from strawberries.
Sarah Grimshaw and David Brown, PhD work with the group on extracting DNA from strawberries.

The children were very excited about their day and seemed to enjoy their experience at JCVI. Several of them were overheard saying that it was one of the best days of their lives – a sentiment that the staff and scientists at JCVI also shared. While the JCVI “take your child to work day” was a successful event, I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had made on the minds of these kids until I heard my daughter describe the double helix model of the DNA to her dad later in the evening with all its components and structural details. She even enthusiastically declared that she wanted to work as a scientist at JCVI (just like her mother), which made me appreciate JCVI’s commitment to educational outreach efforts and public engagement.

With the current environment of science education, it has become critical for institutions like JCVI to take up the mantle to help provide the knowledge, resources, and inspiration to the younger generation in the STEM field. As a parent and a scientist, I am glad that my child had the opportunity to experience some interesting science during this event, and hope to continue to be a part of JCVI’s mission to motivate budding scientists.

Suchismita Chandran, PhD
Staff Scientist, Department of Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy, JCVI