A group of Ladue Horton Watkins High School (LHWHS) students recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, and 1977 graduate of LHWHS, speak at the St. Louis Science Center. Dr. Green discussed the growing significance of his field of genomics to medicine and its relevance to various related careers.
Teachers Abigail Wheeler and Mark Miller took their Environmental Engineering and Advanced Place (AP) Biology classes to interact with Dr. Green and the traveling Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition, “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.” Genomics is the molecular science that deals with the structure and function of the genetic material in all cells, and the exhibition explores how this young field affects modern life. The exhibition is a collaboration between NHGRI and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. St. Louis is the third city on the exhibition’s tour following its opening in Washington, D.C.
Not only is Dr. Green the head of the largest funder of biomedical research in the world and a Ladue School District alumnus, but he is also an avid St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan. “It was a confluence of events that among so many potential cities, we were able to have the exhibition travel to my hometown,” he said. “And it was appropriate to have me lecture to AP students, because genomics will absolutely be part of their future. Genomics is a field of science that is so fast-moving, impactful and relevant to so many different areas of society.”
While many mentors and teachers motivated him throughout his schooling and career, Dr. Green particularly credits Bill Heyde, a former English teacher at LHWHS and coach of the speech and debate team. “He was one of the most influential people in my life,” Dr. Green said. “He had a huge impact on fostering basic skills that I continue to use today.”
Dr. Green grew up in a scientific culture; his father, Maurice Green, Ph.D., is a virologist at St. Louis University School of Medicine. Dr. Green told the students that rather than developing long-term career plans, he made decisions based on opportunities that arose as he went along. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 1987, just at the time when the field of genomics was just beginning to develop. About 25 years ago, Dr. Green participated in the Human Genome Project, starting at its launch. That effort lasted from 1990 to 2003 and produced the first complete ‘decoding’ of the human genome.
During his talk with the students, Dr. Green discussed the history, the background and implications of the Human Genome Project, as well as the current and future applications of genomics. While genomics has a foundation in medical science, Dr. Green pointed out that the field also has a large impact on studies of agriculture, ancestry, livestock, infectious agents, bioenergy and forensics.
“Even if these students don’t go into a career that directly uses genomics, how we practice medicine will be different in the next generation, and that will affect them personally, as well,” he said. Individualized healthcare that uses a person’s genome sequence to help determine the best treatment is already within reach for many patients.
This was the second time Dr. Green has lectured to high school students. In 2012, Dr. Green gave a lecture prior to being honored as a 2012 Distinguished Alumni.
Abigail Wheeler said that she hoped her students realized how applicable genomics were to their daily lives and how advances in the field were going to affect them in the future. “There are opportunities in a variety of careers with genomics, too,” Abigail Wheeler said. “Exposing them to this area of research is an important first step.”
Junior Anum Sameer said the morning spent exploring the exhibition and hearing Dr. Green speak was enlightening. “I’m interested in how genomic mapping can be used to point out a certain gene, like how scientists identified the gene Angelina Jolie carried that put her at risk for breast cancer,” Anum said. “I’m hoping for a career in genomic medicine, so this trip encouraged that goal, and we’ll just see how it goes!”