genomics & society

Student Use of Their Own DNA in Classroom Activities

Posted by Myra I. Roche on March 7, 2012

Last week, our ELSI reading group began a series of three sessions devoted to the controversial issue of whether or not students should be encouraged/allowed to use their own DNA in classroom activities. Dr. Kelly Hogan, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology, became interested in this topic when, after discussing the availability of direct to consumer (DTC) testing with her class, two of her students decided to ante up and have their genome sequenced. One wrote about her experience in this post last December. And the other students? The best guess was that it was only the $200 price tag that deterred them from diving headfirst into their own gene pool.  Some instructors believe that if students have access to their own genetic data, they will become more engaged and learning will be enhanced.  But, as the University of California-Berkeley found out last year, sponsoring this kind of engagement has its own price.

Like most universities, Berkeley’s “On The Same Page” program targets incoming freshman, usually by sending them a book to read over the summer intended to provoke thoughtful discussion.  But the invitation for the 2010 incoming class read: “Bring Your Genes to Cal” (BYOG?); an invitation to spit and learn, so to speak.  The program offered testing for three variants in genes associated with the ability to metabolize lactose, alcohol and folic acid.  These three genes were chosen for their innocuousness and the organizers devised several work-arounds to address the confidentiality and privacy issues inherent in the offer.  Details can be found here.  The price was also right.  The cost to students? Nada.  Or is the lack of a price tag part of the problem?

But maybe University officials weren’t counting on provoking quite so many thoughts.  The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) protested that genetic data would be returned directly to students without medical oversight and also frowned upon the lack of certification of the testing laboratory (it was not CLIA-approved). Although these issues might be expected to be raised during the IRB approval process, apparently, in this case, they weren’t.  Some pros and cons that were voiced about the controversy can be found here , here, and here.

So how does one think over the noise of all of these clamoring voices and identify the relevant ethical issues embedded in this controversy? Next Tuesday, March 13, Dr. Rebecca Walker, will help us do just that by introducing the group to several kinds of ethical approaches or frameworks that can be used to help us distinguish between the melody and the noise.  Stay tuned!

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