Featured — 20 October 2013
On the outskirts of Washington DC, 16 girls gather each year to participate in a week-long genomics camp call GO GIRL (Genomic Opportunities for Girls In Research Labs).

Amanda Munson & Tracey Nickola (and formerly Nancy Skacel), faculty members in the joint pharmacogenomics program between Shenandoah University and The George Washington University, decided to put on the camp, which has just seen its 5th year, in order to pay forward the encouragement they were given by mentors to stay in science.

“Faculty from our program started out showing high school science teachers how to use common genomics techniques in their own classrooms but discovered that with budgetary and safety constraints, they just couldn’t take what we showed them back to their schools. So we thought let’s bring the kids to us. Thankfully, our school district had a HHMI grant that funds this endeavor.”

But why have a girls-only camp?

“There is a disproportionately lower number of girls in the sciences. An equal number of girls & boys might enter the biological sciences but women tend to drop out of that pipeline a lot sooner. The pressures of working in industry & in academia, combined with the desire to have a family, seem to be part of the reason that a lot of women drop out of science. We were inspired in our own careers by female scientists and gained confidence from working in the lab. We thought this would be a good way to pay it forward.”

Stereotypes of girls in science in the media tend to be one of two extremes. On the one hand there is the uber geeky, unpopular brainiac with no social skills, and on the other the super-hot scientist girl in a tight lab coat and hair in a bun. Teenage girls want to avoid being that first stereotype at all costs, while the second suggests that only sexy girls can get away with being brainy too.

“It’s good for the girls to see female scientists who are somewhere between the two, as most people are. We’re relatively normal in that we have families, we’re not stuck in a basement lab feverishly working to publish and losing touch with our families. I go home, I take my kids to soccer practice, everything’s normal. Girls fear that you can’t have it all, that you have to either be the hardcore go-getter or be a stay at home mom, you can’t have both. You can, and companies & academia are starting to make it easier for us to do that. The girls don’t know that it’s possible to be a mother and a scientist, but they see us and it’s helpful for them to see that it’s possible.”

The program itself aims to show girls some of the most interesting things that can be done in genomics, including the chance to work with their own DNA.

“One common experiment that’s been done in high schools for years involves the bitter taste perception of students; usually about 25% of the class won’t taste bitterness while 75% will and with that information students make inferences about genetics. At GO GIRL the girls actually genotype themselves – take some of their DNA and analyse it for variations in a major gene involved in bitter taste perception. Then they correlate what their DNA says with their ability to taste a bitter compound. What we normally see is that out of 16 girls, around 14 can predict their ability to taste bitterness from analyzing their own DNA. It’s a great way to delve a little deeper into the relationship between your genes and your body.”

The camp is designed not only to educate girls about genomics but also to instill them with the confidence to pursue their interests and stand out in the crowd. This may be a small initiative in the grand scheme of things but a lot of other parties have shown interest in replicating the camp and testimonials have shown that the camp works. What’s for sure is that with every individual that is encouraged to stay in science, we increase the chances of seeing the next big discovery.

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Anat Reichman

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