Gaining Hands-On Laboratory Experience with GO GIRL

Most high school girls don’t dream of spending their summer learning how to use micropipettes to measure out miniscule volumes, or looking at glowing proteins. However, that is exactly what 16 female Loudoun County-area high school students wanted to be doing this summer—gaining hands-on laboratory experience in molecular biology and genomics. These girls participated in a week-long educational outreach program called Genomic Opportunities for Girls In Research Labs (GO GIRL) June 10-13.

Created in 2009 by Nancy Skacel, Ph.D., former assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), along with Amanda Munson, Ph.D. and Tracey Nickola, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professors of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS and assistant professors at Shenandoah University’s Department of Pharmacogenomics, the program is hosted by the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy, and Loudoun County Public Schools, and supported through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

GO GIRL, which is held at the GW Science and Technology Campus in Loudoun County, Va. is designed to boost the girls’ interest in genomics and help them better define what type of science they might like to pursue.

“This is our way of paying it forward to the next-generation of female scientists and health care professionals,” said Nickola. “We are a bit biased, but genomics is the future of medicine and our program strives to demystify genomics, providing participants with hands on-experience and female mentorship,” added Munson.

For Julia Simpson, a rising sophomore at Loudoun Valley High School, these four days gave her the opportunity to explore science with other girls who share her passion for the field. “I had never even heard of pharmacogenomics until I went to GO GIRL, but now I realize it is a very concrete, growing branch of science and research,” said Simpson.

During the four day program, the girls practiced techniques commonly used in advanced research labs. “My favorite experiment we conducted in the labs was using gel electrophoresis to examine the VNTRs [Variable Number of Tandem Repeats] on chromosomes in our DNA,” said Simpson. “There was something amazing about seeing part of myself so simply and clearly expressed when the results came back.”  The girls also had the opportunity to uncover the scientific reason for hating Brussels sprouts. They used cutting-edge techniques to explore the association between their ability to taste bitterness and their genetic make-up.

Mentoring the next-generation of female biomedical professionals is a big part of GO GIRL. It’s why Katherine Lemming, B.S., in biological sciences and a recent graduate of the SMHS pharmacogenomics program, participates every summer. “I love being a part of this because it exposes young girls to what the field of science has to offer,” she said. “It gives them a chance to talk to students like myself, as well as professionals in the field, to see the different aspects of each life.” The program also demonstrates that science is fun, which is essential according to Lemming. “These types of programs are so important to science and research because it shows the wide variety of fields these girls can go into,” she said.

During each day’s “lunch and learn” session, the girls are given the opportunity to speak with female biomedical professionals. “The girls have had the opportunity to meet and interact with various professionals over the years, including RNs, M.D.s, PAs, genetic counselors, pharmacists, and of course Ph.D. researchers,” said Nickola. “It’s probably one of their favorite parts of the program.”

This year, parents of the girls were invited to visit the laboratory and have breakfast with their daughters. “It was great to see the girls putting safety goggles on their parents and giving them a tour of the laboratory and see the parents and students snapping pictures of each other. ‘Proud’ best describes the emotions of both daughters and parents that morning,” said Munson.

GO GIRL strengthened Simpson’s resolve and reminded her that even in the male-dominated science field; women can still achieve anything they strive for.