Educational Outreach teaches DNA extraction at UAH science event

HudsonAlpha’s Educational Outreach team presented a Strawberry DNA Extraction session at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) Girls’ Science and Engineering Day on Saturday, Nov. 5. UAH created the half-day program eight years ago to pique the interest of girls in the third through fifth grades in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

April Harris, the associate vice president for advancement and university events at UAH, said Girls Science and Engineering Day was created to target a specific age range of girls on the advice of public school teachers. “The teachers told us that by middle school, many girls have ‘checked-out’ in terms of capturing their interest in STEM,” Harris said. “Our goal during this fun day is to light the fire of possibility and imagination early so girls get and remain engaged in math and science.”

HudsonAlpha has participated in the event from the beginning.

“A key component of the program is showcasing women scientists so that little girls can imagine themselves in the role someday,” Harris said. “HudsonAlpha women are outstanding role models and very effective teachers. Their sessions are top-rated every year.”

Nicole Mertz, an Educational Outreach team member, led the HudsonAlpha workshop at UAH this year. “My goal for Girls’ Science and Engineer Day was to inspire a few future scientists and let the girls know that they can do anything they want,” she said.

Girls who attended the workshop first learned about some key concepts, like the definitions of deoxyribonucleic acid and lysis, for example, before Mertz and other volunteers helped the students walk through the process of extracting DNA from a strawberry.

“I think sometimes children associate DNA with humans only,” Mertz said. “Our activity helped the girls realize all living things have DNA, and you can do things with that DNA to learn about the organism it comes from.”

Once the girls extracted DNA from their strawberries, they tucked the tubes of DNA into their bags to take home – a souvenir from their day to remind them of what they had learned.

Three scientists assisted Mertz with the workshop session. Krysta Engel, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Myers Lab at HudsonAlpha, Emily Gordon, PhD, a research assistant in the Sara Cooper Lab at HudsonAlpha, and Helen Lien, PhD, a frequent HudsonAlpha volunteer, helped each girl complete the activity.

Engel said she volunteered her Saturday morning because she knows the value of teacher mentorship and support for young girls.  

“The influence of teachers and people who were excited about learning and questioning how things worked had a long lasting impact on me,” Engel said. “I would not be where I am today without the support and encouragement of these people. Very few things in life are as meaningful or rewarding as giving someone the tools to validate one of the most fundamental human qualities: curiosity.”

Gordon echoed Engel’s enthusiasm. “Helping teach kids science concepts and experiments during their elementary school years is important to breaking down any barriers or misconceptions that kids may have that science is scary, a dreaded subject in school, or an unattainable career path,” Gordon said.

Mertz, the Educational Outreach team member who led the workshop, also witnessed the excitement for science generated by the UAH-led program spreading before she even made it home. On the way to her car, Mertz passed a girl who was telling her father about Girls’ Science and Engineering Day.

“She proudly pulled her extracted strawberry DNA tube from her pocket to show her Dad,” Mertz said. “Then she told him she could do the activity at home with her brother and sister.”