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Serving the public: grad students host workshop at science camp

DSCN1334Few people look forward to being in a room full of opinionated teenagers, but this what exactly what graduate students Nathan Catlin and Leslie Kollar had volunteered for.

They volunteered to participate in UF’s Center for Precollegiate Education and Training Science Quest Program for the summer of 2015. The duo signed on to teach rising 10th graders about GMOs.

“A lot of the students came in with opinions, which is good because we wanted to facilitate discussion,” Catlin said.

Many of the students were convinced that GMOs were unhealthy, and even dangerous. When Catlin asked where students learned this, they said teachers or parents or social media.

Catlin studies the genetics of rice, and its potential for crop improvement, in the lab of Brad Barbazuk, Genetics Institute faculty member in the department of biology. Kollar studies evolutionary genetics in the lab of Stuart McDaniel, Genetics Institute faculty member in the department of biology.

Both were determined to spend the two days they had with the students empowering them to make informed decisions about scientific topics for themselves.

“We really tried hard to present the good and the bad with it,” Kollar said, “even though Nate and I are very pro-GMO.”

They described some of the potential pitfalls of using GMOS. For example, the possible creation of a “superweed”– where one plant is able to out-compete all other plants, enabling it to overtake the environment

But they also described the incomparable benefits certain GMO foods provide for underfed people around the world.

Such as “yellow” or “golden” rice.

Half-a-million people go blind, and two million die, each year because of Vitamin A deficiency, according to the World Health Organization. In some countries, children subsisting on a diet of rice and specks of vegetables begin to find themselves straining to see anything after the sun sets. Eventually, not even the brightest daylight is unable to penetrate the darkness.

Golden rice, so named because of its color, is a variety of rice genetically modified to produce and accumulate beta-carotene in the edible part of the grain. When people eat it, the beta-carotene is either stored in the body’s fatty tissue, or converted into vitamin A.

For people too poor to obtain food sufficiently nutritious to round out their diet, access to GMO foods such as golden rice can enable them to take in more nutrients from fewer food sources.

The students were intrigued by the notion that GMOs could mean more children, like themselves, making it into adulthood with their eyesight intact.

“We got these students kind of emotionally involved,” Catlin said. “I guess the whole GM fight in the U.S. is we fight about having good food and good food, and in [these countries] they have no options.”

There are upwards of 20 species of rice, but only two domesticated species. Genetic modification enables scientists to pull strengths from crop wild relatives, such as disease resistance and growing qualities, in order to improve the rice we eat.

To show the students that GMOs aren’t quite the frankenfoods they may have imagined, Catlin and Kollar had them use a common process called polymerase chain reaction to assess whether certain foods contained genes commonly present in genetically modified crops. They tested ground beef, corn, tomatoes, vegetable burgers, corn meal and grapes.

They also taught them about media literacy– examining a website or other source to determine whether the information it presents is likely to be valid.

“I feel great,” Kollar said, about what they accomplished with their workshop. “The students learned a lot, and they also had fun. Using these molecular techniques, and making them visual, is hugely important, and relating it to a controversial topic is even more important.”

The experiment they did with the students went so well the University is now implementing it for use in a non-majors biology course.

Catlin thinks scientists have a duty to educate the public about why their work is important, and the benefits it yields to society.

“Sitting in our offices day in and day out, rather than teaching people what we do, is a disservice,” Catlin said.

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