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Research proposal, music video win prizes in DNA contest

A precocious research proposal for testing dietary health, a parody of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" music video and a philosophical essay on genetic testing have won prizes from UC Berkeley's "Bring Your Genes to Cal" program.

Prize winners in DNA contest
First prize winner Juliana Green.

First prize winner Juliana Green, a freshman from Davis.

Three University of California, Berkeley, freshmen have won prizes for their creative and often inspired reactions to last fall’s “Bring Your Genes to Cal” program, which involved a campuswide discussion about DNA testing and personalized medicine.

The first-place winner is Juliana Green, 18, from Davis, Calif., who submitted an eight-page research proposal that at first stumped, and then wowed, the judges and led to an offer by biochemist Michael Marletta to join his lab and train to conduct the research.

“I was very impressed with the level of sophistication and originality in Juliana’s proposal,” said Marletta, the Aldo DeBenedictis Professor of Chemistry.

Green, a member of UC Berkeley’s track and cross-country teams, proposed to develop a method to test athletes’ saliva for a biomarker – nitrite – that may predict blood pressure and exercise tolerance. Nitrite is both a source and a byproduct of the synthesis of nitric oxide (NO), which is known to dilate blood vessels and improve endurance.

“I think monitoring our NO levels via saliva nitrite is going to be a big thing,” said Green, whose own experience with diet and running led to her research on the relationship between NO and performance.

When UC Berkeley asked her to provide a saliva sample as part of “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” she hit on the idea of testing saliva for nitrite, and wrote up her contest proposal: the development of an NO test strip to monitor cardiovascular wellness. If she can arrange to manufacture easy-to-use, self-check NO test strips for saliva, she wants to see whether monitoring this biomarker for NO can help athletes, or anyone, regulate their diet.

“Aside from endurance athletes, such as swimmers and runners, I think our aging population could really benefit,” she said. “Both exercise and nitrate-rich Mediterranean diets consisting of leafy green vegetables are a source of NO, and this NO improves blood vessel action, which can be a big problem for our grandparents. So, they can use the NO test strips throughout the day to remind them to exercise ‑ which elevates the gene for the NO enzyme ‑ and eat more leafy green veggies and beets, which are dietary sources of NO.”

“It was a level of creativity and quality I would have expected from a first-year graduate student rather than a college freshman,” said an amazed Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences and one of the judges.

“Connecting Juliana up with a professor has been one of the unexpected rewards of the program,” said Alix Schwartz, coordinator of the On the Same Page initiative, which sponsored “Bring Your Genes to Cal.” “Freshmen don’t usually get a chance to work in a lab on their own experiments.”

Engaging the freshman class

Each year, On the Same Page engages entering freshmen and transfer students from the College of Letters and Science in a common educational experience. In past years, students were sent books to read or DVDs to watch in preparation for class discussions during the fall semester. As a way to better engage students, “Bring Your Genes to Cal” asked incoming students to submit DNA samples for analysis of three seemingly innocuous gene variants. The five L&S deans hoped that, through lectures, panels, classroom discussions and a contest, the students would think about and explore the scientific and societal implications of personal genetic testing.

The contest drew 35 submissions that included poems, essays, drawings and posters, along with one music video that  shared second place.

Josephine Coburn

Josephine Coburn of Great Falls, Mont., won a second-place prize for her music video, “Chromosome.”

Titled “Chromosome,” the music video  is a parody of the YouTube hit “Telephone” by Lady Gaga. Josephine Coburn of Great Falls, Mont., who submitted the video, called in favors from high school friends, including members of hometown dance and theater companies, who sang and danced in a classroom and laboratory. Coburn wrote, directed, shot and edited the piece, while her sister did the choreography. The video was shot last summer at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, where Coburn worked as an intern.

“When I looked at videos about science, in particular the Bio-RAD advertisement (for the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR), I thought it would be cool to show people some simple genetics,” Coburn said. After coming to UC Berkeley, she learned about the contest from her freshman seminar professor, biochemist Jeremy Thorner, the William V. Power Chair in Biology, and submitted the video.

“Bring your Genes to Cal was a really cool choice for subject matter,” said Coburn, 18, who plans to major in molecular and cell biology.

Second place was shared by Christopher Allen, 20, of Half Moon Bay, Calif., who submitted an essay about “The New Genetic Frontier.” He argued that “in the face of the incredibly exciting but daunting potential unlocked by a new scientific field, philosophy may be the best tool for understanding our place in a rapidly changing world, a world that may not turn out to be as foreign as it at first seems.”

Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen, a freshman from Half Moon Bay, earned a second-place prize for his philosophical essay on genetic testing.

Humanities dean Janet Broughton, herself a philosophy professor, characterized his essay as “an engaged, thoughtful effort to think about genetic testing as an arena within which science and philosophy jostle for our attention.”

The contest was open to all College of Letters & Science students willing to submit a creative project related to this school year’s theme. The prizes originally were DNA test kits donated by the genetic testing company 23andMe, but to avoid implying a stance on direct-to-consumer DNA testing, the organizers substituted a $1,000 first prize and two $500 second prizes.

The program changed in other ways after igniting a storm of controversy last summer. Some UC Berkeley professors, as well as genetic policy organizations across the country, protested “testing before teaching” about genetic screening, or objected to any genetic testing of students at all. In the end, the students were not allowed to see their individual DNA test results, as originally planned.

Nevertheless, the “Bring Your Genes to Cal” program proved the value of asking for student feedback during the summer, rather than simply asking them to read a book in preparation for a fall discussion. As a part of next year’s theme for On the Same Page, students will be asked to submit something personal, but not DNA.

Related information

•  On the Same Page program

•  Tempest in a spit cup (Sept. 10, 2010, feature)

•  UC Berkeley alters DNA testing program (Aug. 12, 2010, new release)

•  Berkeley Blog posts about Bring your Genes to Cal