Contest Winners Zero in on DNA Debate

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Tackling genetics with expertise and enthusiasm, three UC Berkeley freshmen from the College of Letters and Science won acclaim and a combined $2,000 in grant money by participating in a contest, showcasing talent and creativity, that was born out of controversy.

The contest, "Show Us What You're Made Of," began this year as part of the College of Letters and Science's annual "On the Same Page" program, which aims to engage faculty and incoming students in discussion on a common topic, and asked for student perspectives on personalized medicine, in line with this year's topic, "Bring Your Genes to Cal."

The winning submissions embraced and critiqued genetics, reflecting the controversy the program faced when it first launched the topic last summer. It initially planned to examine DNA of individual new students, but was stopped after a state Department of Public Health decision in August.

But this did not stop Juliana Green from using the idea of individualized salivary testing to discover information about the body.

Green's first-place research proposal, which earned her $1,000, seeks to measure nitrite levels to gauge a person's endurance and blood pressure - a topic she said has interested her since high school.

"One time before my run, I replaced my usual peanut butter sandwich with celery, and I felt better - and after doing some online research, I made the connection to nitric oxide," she said.

After discovering that nitrites were surrogate markers of nitric oxide, which is key to improving endurance, Green formulated a way to test her own nitric oxide levels by measuring the levels of nitrite in her saliva rather than using a blood test.

Green tested her saliva with a cotton swab that had been treated with a combination of chemicals that caused the swab to turn different shades of pink depending on the levels of nitrite detected - a method known as the Griess test.

"I literally performed this experiment on my kitchen table," she said. "(The program) just took it to the next level, leading me to make this nitrite test into a product that athletes could use to monitor their health, using salivary tests just like the ones the program sent out to test students' DNA."

Chris Allen, one of two second-place contestants who won $500 each, said he was inspired to look at another aspect of this year's topic: ethical questions raised by genetic testing.

"The side issues that were debated that people thought were novel struck me as not that novel at all - I wanted to explore the idea that philosophy has been dealing with them for a really long time," he said.

In his essay, "The New Genetic Frontier: A Philosophical Perspective," Allen discussed changing conceptions of identity and morality in the face of modern genetics.

"One issue is perceiving ethical issues arising from genetics, but not realizing the unchallenged assumptions at work," he said. "You can address this by thinking about why they are bothersome in the first place, and why they are causing these assumptions."

Tying for second place, Josephine Coburn presented a more upbeat interpretation. Parodying Lady Gaga's song and music video "Telephone," Coburn and some of her friends from high school presented what they called Lady Gallium's "Chromosome."

They created the educational video, complete with Gaga hairstyles and jumpsuits, over the summer at the McLaughlin Research Institute in Montana, where Coburn worked as an intern. Unaware of the contest at the time, Coburn said she initially made the video to spread enthusiasm among her peers - something she thinks is essential in learning about science.

"It's a really cool program," she said. "The other winning entries are really interesting. The idea that you can be so self aware about your health, or looking at genetics from a philosophical standpoint - just more science-related things to inspire enthusiasm."

Alix Schwartz, coordinator of the program, said she was pleased that a range of disciplines were represented.

"We are a diverse college - it's amazingly fortunate that the best entries reflected this," she said.


Kate Lyons covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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