The popularity of products that provide detailed insight into your personal DNA is proof that even folks who are not particularly science literate are still interested in their genetics—what makes them who they are. But basic, first-hand experiments with DNA are not something even most high school students across the nation, let alone the world, are able to experience in their classrooms.
David A. Micklos, executive director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center (DNALC) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is trying to change that by “developing lab and computer infrastructure that allows large numbers of students and citizen scientists to experience the thrill of biological research.”
Micklos’ work is being recognized with the 2021 Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education from the ASCB. This award is given to an individual who has demonstrated innovative and sustained contributions to science education, with a priority on the national impact of the nominee’s activities. Micklos will receive the award during Cell Bio Virtual 2021 in December where he will also present the talk, “Preparing Teachers for Science: The Endless Frontier.”
Micklos’s team is devoted to developing methods and models to popularize hands-on genetics and genomics education.
“We simplifed several contemporary research methods so that they can be rapidly, safely, and reproducibly done in pre-college and college classrooms—including bacterial transformation, eukaryotic PCR, and metabarcode analysis,” Micklos said. “We conceived of kits and mobile labs to carry DNA training to teachers around the world, and we developed the first personal DNA experiment that allows students to anaylze their own DNA sequence. Over the last decade, our methods for DNA barcoding and DNA Subway analysis platform have been widely adopted for authentic student research and citizen science studies of biodiversity.”
To get the most out of the kits, Micklos also trains life science educators on how to use them in their classrooms. By all accounts, the professional development training sessions seem intense. Mark Little, a past president of the National Association of Biology Teachers, has attended some of the training workshops presented by Micklos and his team.
“Micklos and his staff took us through a deep dive in the mornings about the mechanisms of RNA interference, and the afternoons were spent in the laboratory, learning experiments that could be done with high school students using C. elegans to demonstrate RNA interference,” Little wrote in his nomination letter for Micklos. “We learned the technical skills necessary to carry out these procedures in a high school classroom with future scientists as well as learning at first hand how to use some of the tools of bioinformatics. David’s instruction allowed me to take my DNA science teaching to a whole new level.”
Little continued: “David’s impact on DNA science education is far reaching. I know from my conversations with other teachers across the country that Micklos has taught and inspired many biological science educators and provided numerous educational opportunities for students and teachers. Over the years, I have told many colleagues about the DNALC professional development workshops, and recommended they attend if the opportunity arises. The DNALC and Micklos’s outreach is expansive; in 2018 there were at least 50,000 precollege students able to perform hands-on laboratory experiments at DNALC or with the help of the DNALC staff perform the labs at their schools or attended week-long summer camps in the area.”
Micklos’ work positively impacts life science education for disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.
“Throughout my career I have tried to level the playing field in biology by decreasing the cost of DNA experimentation and increasing access to computer programs for DNA analysis,” Micklos said. “By [placing] training workshops at minority-serving institutions, we have more than doubled the number of URM teachers served. In the same way, our DNA Learning Centers in Harlem and Brooklyn, NY, reach a natural constituency of diverse students. Our Research Ready Program works intensively with under-resourced schools to help them develop the same sort of project and research-based biology programs as the elite schools of Long Island and Manhattan.”
Micklos earned his BS in biology in 1975 from Salisbury University (then Salisbury State College) and his MS in science journalism in 1982 from the University of Maryland, College Park. He initially came to work in public affairs and development at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) School of Biological Sciences. He became the Executive Director of the DNALC in 1988, and in 2009 was awarded a DSc Honoris causa by the CSHL School of Biological Sciences.
“I am honored to join the company of a number of great educators I know who have received the Bruce Alberts Award,” Micklos said. “This award is a nice bookend to the Charles A. Dana Award I received early in my career.”
Since moving to Manhattan, Micklos said he has become an avid biker.
“It requires a lot of focus. I especially love riding across the Brooklyn Bridge to work every day; it really makes me feel that I am living the life!” he said. “I collect antique furniture, lighting fixtures, and curios from my travels. I like to cook, and my friends ask for my seared tuna dish.”
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.