Lindbergh HS

This morning I had the opportunity to speak at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis County about GMOs. I was invited by an advanced science teacher, Bryan Cintel, after he asked around through the biology department listserv for a guest speaker.
It was fortuitous because their AP biology course was already covering biotechnology and GMOs so I was able to contribute to that unit by giving a scientist’s perspective on the matter. Even though I don’t work on GMOs myself, my work as a plant biologist brings up the topic a lot. And since I went into plant biology because of an interest in developing strong food systems, genetic engineering is a topic I’m always trying to learn more about. I’m the resident ‘plant guy’ to a lot of my friends and family so I’m used to covering everything from plant science to organic farming and Monsanto’s legal team. It just comes with the territory.
But I was excited to present to students after presenting at the Community Garden Summit a few weeks back. The students were very advanced—they had covered the cloning of genes, gene regulation, the structure of DNA and restriction enzymes among other topics. So I was able to focus more on the science and biology behind genetic engineering than I was when presenting to the more heterogeneous crowd at the Community Garden Summit. This was my first time giving a presentation exclusively on GMOs and I was happy to have the practice. I know it won’t be my last!
I borrowed a few slides from my previous presentation but I wanted to make sure I contributed some actual biology that was new to the students. They had learned about genetic engineering in bacteria, but plants are a bit of a different story and I taught them about how we use Agrobacterium to help us transform plants. Or a ‘gene gun’ when we can’t use Agro.
The students had questions ready from an assignment but of course a handful of students in each period spoke up the most and were really interested in the topic, which was great. One girl already knew about Golden Rice, which was a topic I covered in my slides. Of course, some students were interested in the ethics and legal issues surrounding the patenting of genes and whether Monsanto was in the right when they sued some farmers for patent infringement. I always try to make it clear that I’m no expert on Monsanto’s legal issues, but the fact is that I keep abreast of the information as much as I can so I do usually have something to contribute. And the students wanted my opinion on some of the other concerns surrounding GMOs, like the health consequences of eating them. I told them that it was the strong consensus that GMOs are perfectly safe to eat. But I did bring up some of the more legitimate issues that skeptics have with the technology, like the problem of ‘gene escape’ from a genetically engineered crop to a wild relative.
Mr. Cintel asked me to talk a little bit about biotech jobs as well. Although I don’t have direct experience in the biotechnology industry, GMOs and plant science in general are great to talk about in the St. Louis region. We have the highest concentration of plant scientists in the world, largely thanks to Monsanto. But we also have great non-profit institutions like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and of course Washington University. This gave me a chance to talk about the several different ways that students could become involved with science as a career. It’s not only academic research, but it can be industry work or work at independent research centers like the DDPSC. And I told them that a career in science isn’t necessarily limited to those with Ph.D.s. A place like Monsanto should have jobs for all educational levels where you still get to ‘do science’ at a different level.
I had a great time, even though I had to wake up an hour earlier than usual to get out to the school by 8:10. Several of the students were interested in going into science and I told them that Washington University probably has opportunities for them to do work during the summer even in high school. That’s how I got started.
I hope to speak to more students in the future. Maybe I’ll even return to Lindbergh High School to speak next year on a similar topic.
(Topic preview: I was selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference taking place at Washington University from April 5-7. My Commitment to Action continues my outreach efforts to bring plant scientists in the region together with the urban agriculture community. I’ll write about that shortly.)