Students Promote Genetic Engineering in the Classroom
Tackling Scientific Trepidations; U-Md. Students Promote Genetic Engineering
Ernesto Londono, Washington Post August 31, 2003
When the worldwide debate over genetically modified foods and plants swirled onto U.S. college campuses a few years ago, most of the attention focused on students holding rallies against the technology. At the University of Maryland, 10 undergraduates who have spent three years studying genetic engineering are gearing up to promote their side of the issue: They are all for it.
"Some people seem to think that you're creating something like Frankenstein, like we're manipulating nature in a way that wasn't supposed to happen," said biochemistry major Seth Zonies, 21, one of the participants in the Gemstone Genetics Project, a university-run effort to promote the research and use of laboratory-altered plants. "The fact is, we can grow plants that are healthier and stronger," he said.
Each year since 1996, a select number of freshmen are invited by faculty members to join the Gemstone program. During their first semester, the students divide into teams of about a dozen and select an interdisciplinary area of study around which to anchor a four-year project.
Professor Anne E. Simon, an expert in cell biology and molecular genetics, piqued the students' interest in genetic engineering. "It's such an important issue and yet so misunderstood," Simon said. "As students read more about it, they came to the conclusion that they didn't understand the topic, even though it's absolutely crucial to them."
Initially, the U-Md. students intended to come up with a project to convince policymakers in developing countries that genetic engineering could improve the quality of life of their people. However, after conducting surveys in Maryland to assess how much their own neighbors knew about genetic engineering, they decided to look no further than some high schools in Montgomery County.
"When we took on the issue of education, we decided Maryland schools [were] the best place to start," said Annie Catherwood, 21, an animal science major. "We wanted to do something that would have a real impact."
Starting this school year, the students will aim to provide lab kits to about a dozen high school biology classes. The kits can be used to change the genetic makeup of a plant named Arabidopsis thaliana by introducing a bacterium that makes it resistant to an herbicide. The Gemstone project has been contacting biology teachers in Montgomery in hopes that they'll use the kits in their curriculum.
"The lab kits make this technology accessible to pretty much everyone," said Emily Tai, 21, an aerospace engineering and economics major and the leader of the student group. "It's cheap enough that schools in low-income areas could still do it."
Though the genetically altered plants will serve no purpose after the experiment, the Gemstone team hopes that a trial in area public schools -- made possible by an $8,000 grant from the National Science Foundation -- will sprout interest in a technology that in recent years has revolutionized the way crops in the United States are grown.
This is important, the students say, because genetic engineering, which has met stiff resistance in Europe and many developing countries, could significantly improve the quality of life for millions of people in Third World countries. "It could significantly ease world hunger," Tai said.
In recent years, polls in the United States have found that many people know little about genetically modified foods -- such as corn and soybeans engineered to resist insects or chemicals -- and are wary of the technology after learning how many of the products they consume each day have been altered.
The European Union has refused to buy most types of genetically modified foods from the United States, Canada and Argentina -- the world's leading growers of gene-altered crops -- for fear that the technology might have harmful long-term effects. "There just isn't enough information out there to get complacent about it," said Bruce Hamilton, national conservation director of the Sierra Club, based in San Francisco. "The implications of this are simply not well understood."
In a survey in the Rockville area last spring, the Gemstone students found that although 74 percent said they were not opposed to eating genetically engineered foods, misconceptions about the processes were widespread.
More than 14 percent, for example, said they believed that human genes could be altered by eating genetically engineered foods -- an assertion research has disproved.
"The science frightens people," Simon said. "I think scientists have been portrayed as being inhumane puppy-killers."