Scientists talking genetics with the public

Exhibit calendar

Sept. 27, 2014 – Jan. 4, 2015

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
San Diego

Jan. 22, 2015 – April 27, 2015

The Tech Museum of Innovation
San Jose, Calif.

May 15, 2015 – Sept. 10, 2015

St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis, Mo.

Oct. 2, 2015 – Jan. 3, 2016

Oregon Museum of Science & Industry Portland, Ore.

Jan. 28, 2016 – April 25, 2016

Discovery World Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wis.

Sept. 30, 2016 – Jan. 1, 2017

Exploration Place
Wichita, Kan.

Jan. 28, 2017 – May 29, 2017

Peoria Riverfront Museum
Peoria, Ill.

Sept. 30, 2017 – Jan. 1, 2018

Science North
Sudbury, Ontario  
I am a second-year postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health and one of two dozen scientists from around the Washington, D.C., area who have volunteered at the National Museum of Natural History’s genomics exhibit.
I have learned a lot from my time as a genome exhibit volunteer. From interacting with 1,500-plus visitors over the past year, I have gained unique insights into the lay public’s understanding of genetics and expectations for how genetics will shape the future. And I have to say that, as a Ph.D. scientist who spends a lot of his time inside a scientific bubble with other Ph.D.s, I was surprised to realize just how far out of touch I had become with the lay public’s knowledge and views of science. (And I have been inside my scientific bubble for only eight years!)
In the summer of 2013, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome, the NIH and the museum partnered to put on the entertaining and highly educational exhibit titled “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.” The 4,400-square-foot exhibit features seven areas of genomic science, exploring what a genome is, the role of genomics in understanding human evolution and the role of genomics in reshaping medicine.
What really makes this exhibit special, I think, is the Genome Zone area, where hands-on activities teach kids and adults alike about genetics and how it is shaping all of our futures. It is also my favorite area in which to volunteer, because I enjoy teaching and it is very rewarding to watch kids have fun while learning genetics.
A couple of the hands-on activities the Genome Zone offered were
  • • the phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC, taste test to identify which variant of the taste receptor TAS2R38 the visitor has and
  • • the trait tree to identify monogenic traits (dimples, widows peak, tongue rolling) that the visitor may or may not share with other visitors.
The trait tree is most fun with children and their parents, because it usually ends up turning into a competition between the parents to see who shares more traits with their kids. But it is also the perfect opportunity to break out the Punnett square and teach inheritance.
Genome Zone Body
Images courtesy of Donald E. Hurlbert and James Di Loreto, Smithsonian
The most popular — and most difficult — hands-on activity is known as Genes in a Bottle. It involves making a necklace with DNA extracted from a visitor’s cheek cells. Imagine 20 visitors of all ages who have never been in a lab before sitting around three tables with 50-ml conical tubes, Pasteur pipettes and small cups of their spit. It can get a little messy, but it is worth it when they say in amazement, “You mean this white, gooey-looking stuff is my DNA?”
Museums are great venues to communicate science to kids and the public because they are fun and low-pressure environments. They also offer great opportunities for scientists to learn how to communicate science to the public – a skill most scientists lack – in an engaging, exciting and easy-to-understand manner. The most important lesson I learned was how bad I actually was at communicating science to kids and nonscientists. I am happy to say that, thanks to this volunteer opportunity, I have dramatically improved my communication skills.
I feel very fortunate to have been employed at the NIH during the year that the genome exhibit spent in Washington. Had I not received NIH e-mails asking for employee volunteers, I never would have thought to seek out volunteer opportunities at museums. In fact, I enjoyed volunteering so much that as the genome exhibit in D.C. came to a close, I asked to be transferred to the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. I look forward to the new challenges it presents.
While the exhibit left D.C. earlier this month, it will travel around the U.S. for the next four years. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the cities hosting the exhibit, I highly recommend reaching out to that institution and asking about volunteer opportunities. For the majority of you living in other cities, seek out opportunities at your local museum or science centers. Chances are good they will be glad to have your help and your expertise.
Joseph P. TianoJoseph P. Tiano ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Md.