Gene and stem cell therapy researcher Dr. Jen Adair recently received the 2018 Board President of the Year Award from the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County. Adair was honored in part for her role in creating and hosting a Gene Therapist for a Day workshop for elementary- and middle school-aged Boys & Girls Club members. The yearly workshop supports the Club’s mission to support young people, particularly those most in need, in becoming productive citizens by introducing them to research firsthand.
“I have a really strong interest in increasing the diversity in science,” Adair said. “There’s an exponential amount of brainpower that could be so helpful to solving some of our biggest problems, but [the scientific establishment] consistently fails to recognize that we might have to make accommodations that we’re not used to, to get those voices to the table.”
“There’s a lot of research to suggest that it’s not as if we’ve got a huge diverse workforce that’s just waiting to get hired,” she said. “We’re failing to encourage people to enter science.”
She hopes to help address this by encouraging kids to see themselves as scientists as early as possible.
Adair began participating in the Boys & Girls Club when her now college-aged sons were in middle school and joined the North Seattle branch’s Club Advisory Board in early 2017. She stepped into the position of board president about nine months ago. The workshop grew out of the need for field-trip locations for kids participating in the Club’s summer STEM camps. Adair, who develops gene therapy methods to address diseases ranging from Fanconi anemia to brain cancer, as well as new ways to bring gene therapy to low-resource settings, offered Fred Hutch as a field trip for the kids in the STEM camps.
The kids learn about genes and how they direct size, shape and color using strawberries as an example. They practice research techniques by extracting DNA from strawberries and talk about changes they could make to the DNA to influence the fruit. This hypothetical strawberry gene therapy is then related to real-life gene therapy to treat diseases like cancer and sickle cell anemia. The goal is to help address scientific diversity early by getting kids — who will someday be college students choosing between STEM and non-STEM majors — engaged, familiar with, and excited about research.
“I thought, instead of just a campus tour and a small experiment, I would introduce them to a day in the life of a scientist,” Adair explained.
Though it’s only one day, the kids get the full experience. In addition to getting a Hutch campus tour, they do hands-on bench work in Adair’s own lab, working with high school– and college-aged summer interns, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. They also see facilities on campus the scientists use when doing clinical research and learn about the importance of communicating lessons learned to their peers, in a small presentation.
Adair is working with Fred Hutch's director of Diversity & Inclusion, Aiko Bethea, to expand the workshop to serve more tweens during the school year. She hopes to expand the research they participate in as well.
“It would be fun to do more than just Gene Therapist for a Day,” Adair said; “maybe Virologist for a Day.” She’s currently reaching out to find more faculty members who can open their laboratories and help show kids the wonderful world of science.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at email@example.com.