College of Medicine Team Brings National DNA Day to Tucson

College of Medicine Team Brings National DNA Day to Tucson

By Kristina MakansiResearch, Discovery and Innovation
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Michael Johnson, an assistant professor of immunobiology, worked with two doctoral students to bring National DNA Day to Tucson. (Photo: Mari Cleven/Office of Research, Discovery and Innovation)
Michael Johnson, an assistant professor of immunobiology, worked with two doctoral students to bring National DNA Day to Tucson. (Photo: Mari Cleven/Office of Research, Discovery and Innovation)
Megan Stanley Molina, molecular medicine doctoral student and co-organizer of Tucson DNA Day (Photo courtesy of Megan Stanley Molina)
Megan Stanley Molina, molecular medicine doctoral student and co-organizer of Tucson DNA Day (Photo courtesy of Megan Stanley Molina)
Tyler Ripperger, molecular medicine doctoral student and co-organizer of Tucson DNA Day (Photo courtesy of Tyler Ripperger)
Tyler Ripperger, molecular medicine doctoral student and co-organizer of Tucson DNA Day (Photo courtesy of Tyler Ripperger)

This week is exciting for genomics education in Tucson, thanks in large part to Michael Johnson, an assistant professor of immunobiology.

He and two doctoral students have organized a local observance of DNA Day, a nationwide event celebrated every April 25 that promotes genetics and genomics research to elementary and secondary school students, teachers and the public. The day also commemorates the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the 1953 discovery of DNA's double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick, which was made with contributions from Rosalind Franklin.

The idea of bringing it to Tucson began with molecular medicine doctoral students Megan Stanley Molina and Tyler Ripperger, who approached Johnson about opportunities to do outreach work and connect with the community.

Johnson had the perfect project in mind – National DNA Day.

With Johnson's guidance, Molina and Ripperger were able to generate enough interest to fill three days of events reaching nearly 700 high school students and eight teachers at three high schools. The events will be led by 22 students and postdocs in the Department of Immunobiology at the College of Medicine – Tucson.

Johnson, who is also a member of the UA's BIO5 Institute, first became involved with National DNA Day, an initiative promoted by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, while working on his own doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

NIH Director "Francis Collins and other NIH staff gave a presentation at UNC, and afterward, I went to one of the interest meetings about starting DNA Day in Chapel Hill. I sat down and started taking notes about how to create a teaching module for use in area high schools and all the sudden I was curriculum director," Johnson recalls.

Johnson was involved with DNA Day for four years in Chapel Hill, and when he moved on to a postdoc at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, he took his enthusiasm for the initiative with him.

"We worked with several schools while I was in Memphis, and I also started a podcast and did an episode with the DNA Days staff," Johnson says. "My podcast days are over for now, but I'm excited to be a part of the effort to bring DNA Days to Tucson and to be able to add a focus on the UA's precision medicine program in the mix."

One of the NIH staff members Johnson interviewed on his podcast was Carla Easter, who was also there when Johnson first got involved in the program back in North Carolina. When Easter learned Johnson was once again instrumental in starting a new DNA Day program, she was thrilled.

"The National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health is proud to add Arizona to its list of states with active DNA Day outreach events courtesy of Dr. Michael Johnson at the University of Arizona," she said. "I think it is really exciting that the university is incorporating the topic of precision medicine through the inclusion of the All of Us Research Program into their classroom visits. Dr. Johnson has been a supporter of DNA Day since 2007 and has initiated DNA Day programming in three different states. He has been not only a supporter of DNA Day, but a true champion for science literacy."

Johnson says he has always had a passion for science education and community outreach.

"I've always felt that outreach is important, and today I believe it is more important than ever," he says. "Those of us who do research are the exact experts needed to combat rampant scientific misinformation."

For more information about National DNA Day programs, or to see the complete list of National DNA Day events, visit the DNA Day website.

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