The students who came to NLM on June 26 to narrow down their career choices were out of luck.
They were introduced to more opportunities than they dreamed possible.
Through presentations, demonstrations, tours, dozens of NIH staffers wearing “Ask me about my awesome job” buttons, and even a little wizardry, students from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth participated in a day of scientific inquiry designed especially for them.
Cosponsored by NLM and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), “Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Biomedicine” attracted seventy-five middle and high school students, their parents, and the occasional grandparent. NLM had participated in this annual event for the students in the past, but this was the first time the Library was a co-sponsor.
NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan welcomed the students and immediately began busting myths.
She listed three stereotypes about libraries: They’re all about books, being quiet, and librarians as nice ladies who wear glasses.
While you can certainly find all of these at the National Library of Medicine—and Dr. Brennan herself loves books, likes quiet, and is a lady who wears glasses—this day for students wasn’t about any of them. Dr. Brennan encouraged the students to make some noise. This was to be a day to get excited about data as a platform for discoveries and a pathway for engagement—and much more.
On the pathway
The announcement about the event “really caught my attention,” said Lina Massis, a 16-year-old from Herndon, Virginia, who has ambitions to become a physician. She thought summer was the perfect time for the program. Her father, Maher Massis, agreed, but he added it was a nice father-daughter outing.
Fifteen-year-old Christopher Quinlan from Feasterville-Trevose, Pennsylvania, who is interested in biology and chemistry, thought the day of discovery would help him figure out what to focus on, but the opposite happened. He said, “There’s so much to take in.” His mother, Nicole Quinlan, who references ClinicalTrials.gov in her work, said it was “encouraging to see the resources available.”
Caroline Kim, 12, traveled from London with her mother to attend the program and to see her grandmother who lives in the US. Caroline wants to be a physician or a veterinarian. She said she was amazed to learn how much can be done for people without actually working with patients. Her grandmother, Chris Casper, was particularly impressed with the speakers’ enthusiasm and their ability to connect and teach. And Caroline’s mother, Barbara Kim, praised the program for helping her daughter learn about more possibilities.
Can I help you?
Kicking off his keynote address, Terry Yoo, PhD, told his young audience that he was from the government and asked, “Can I help you?” The line drew chuckles, but the scientist from NLM’s Office of High Performance Computing and Communications went on to help the teenagers learn how technology and medicine are making personalized medicine possible.
Dr. Yoo could relate to the audience in a unique way: His sons Ross and Duncan had participated in the Hopkins program, so he was prepared to keep the group engaged.
Using props ranging from épées to a plastic building toy to a slide of a yawning bunny, Dr. Yoo gave the students a crash course in biomedicine. He borrowed a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln to make the case that data is helping medicine be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Dr. Yoo encouraged the students to keep in mind the famous quote from Louis Pasteur about how chances favor the prepared mind. Thanks to his presentation, many students felt more prepared.
Seeing is believing
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the presentations from NLM’s artists could fill a book or two.
The artists in the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications’ Audiovisual Program Development Branch shared images, videos, and their personal journeys to NLM.
Many of the students could relate to Kristen Browne, who confessed that she really didn’t know what she wanted to do when she was growing up, but she did like a television series. In Browne’s case, it was “The X-Files,” a science fiction drama that aired from 1993 until 2002 and featured a female FBI agent and medical doctor named Dana Scully. Like the no-nonsense and curious Scully, Browne’s own curiosity has helped her throughout her career. Brown shared images and examples of her latest project: three-dimensional models of body parts based on NLM’s Visible Human Project.®
Dr. Jeff Day told the audience about his circuitous journey from a kid who loved cartooning and animals to a medical doctor to an artist at NLM, where he combines many things he enjoys: writing, clinical medicine, public speaking, animation, and cartooning.
NLM artist Donald Bliss talked about his cutting-edge work—even calling it “bleeding edge” work—and showed images of his work, including a model of a dendritic cell that looks like it could be a rose. “Most textbook models of dendritic cells show a cell body with finger-like appendages,” he explained. Bliss made the case for doing what you love. He said, “Sometimes, I can’t believe I get paid to have this much fun.”
After hearing the artists talk about their work, the students got to see them in action as Browne, Day, and Bliss, along with graphic designer Troy Hill and summer interns Priscilla Seah and Jerry Gu, invited the students into their studios.
Elizabeth Tuck and the team leading the bioinformatics session from the NHGRI set the students up with a simulation to experience how scientists investigate and narrow down a large data set.
She used the real life example of Nic Volker, a child from Wisconsin who developed a mysterious, life-threatening disease that ravaged his intestines, making it impossible for him to eat normally and causing terrible pain. The students could see for themselves how gene sequencing helped researchers identify a mutation in Nic’s XIAP gene, which led to treatment that saved his life.
Tuck, a genomics education specialist, also presented case studies on other illnesses, including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. She said that students got the satisfaction of solving medical mysteries.
Touring and fun facts
Throughout the day, parents and interested students took a tour of the Library, which included information about the architecture of the main library building and the chance to see ancient medical texts.
During lunch, the NHGRI and NLM staff mingled with the students so they could ask about anything from communicating about asthma to sequencing the genome for Zika.
The afternoon keynote speaker, NLM’s David Landsman, PhD, shared information, fun facts, and enthusiasm about his area of expertise and interest: merging results obtained in biology analyses with those derived from experiments in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, and genetics. He talked about how this work can improve human health.
The senior investigator in the National Center on Biotechnology Information also told the audience there is a large amount of foreign DNA living on and in your body. He explained how humans have bacteria and viruses on their bodies and that bacteria living in the crease of your elbow are different from the ones on your arms.
In the question and answer session, he answered questions on everything from basic science to ethics.
In her remarks at the end of the program, Carla Easter, PhD, chief of NHGRI’s Education and Community Involvement Branch, wanted the students to realize there is “an abundance of opportunities in every aspect of science.” She told NLM in Focus, “One day, maybe one of these students will become a colleague.”
More than a dozen students and parents stayed beyond the formal program to check out the NLM exhibition Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter series.
Many of the students learned firsthand what Professor Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter in The Chamber of Secrets. He said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
And when the students are in need of more choices, they could take the advice of Ron Weasley discussing Hermione Granger in The Chamber of Secrets: “When in doubt, go to the library.”
By Kathryn McKay, NLM in Focus writer
All photos by Charlie Chang