Engaging with genetics

Matthew Hickman, Education Project Manager at Nowgen

I came to Nowgen almost two years ago to manage our work with schools. That means working with teachers and students, but also exam boards and other people who have an interest in what is taught in school. I work with scientists too, helping them ‘translate’ their work into language that is understandable for school audiences and giving them opportunities to work with school groups.

My mum was a science teacher, so I’ve always been interested in science, and biology in particular (she’s a botanist). When I got to university I studied straight ‘Biology’ and found it was the genetics and molecular biology side of things that really interested me – all these amazing, carefully regulated ‘machines’ inside us, running along constantly, almost like clockwork. Now I want to show young people what a fascinating area modern genetics is and how it can affect our everyday lives.

Much of the genetics that is taught in schools begins with the story of an obscure Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, who lived in the 1800s. Although this approach is historically accurate, Mendel’s work was based around the relatively limited observations he could make at the time, in a very simple model. In real life, what people actually observe is very much messier! So, I get to think about how to update what students learn so that they find out about what’s really going on in genetics.

One of the main projects I work on is called the Nowgen Schools Genomics Programme. As you might guess, this project aims to get the most contemporary genetics (‘genomics’) into classrooms. To do this, I work with lots of people with quite different jobs, ranging from Clinical Geneticists (medical doctors who specialise in genetics), to PhD students, to people in exam boards, to teachers and school students. Because a key aim of teachers is to help their students do well in their exams, working with the exam boards is really important. Showing them that, in practice, modern genetics is quite different to how it’s presented in the classroom helps encourage them to think about updating their exam specifications.

To persuade examiners and exam boards I work with Andrew Read, who is a retired professor of human genetics up here in Manchester. Recently, Andrew and I, along with my boss, put together a workshop at the Wellcome Trust to discuss with examiners how genetics is different to how it appears on exam specs, and how we can address those differences. Being able to work well with lots of different people, all with different agendas and ideas is really important for my job.

We also support local schools in and around Manchester. We have a teaching lab in our building where schools bring A level students to do practical work they wouldn’t be able to do at school. It’s part of my job to manage our school workshops, which means recruiting and training PhD students to run the workshops, and keeping the lab equipped with all the chemicals and consumables we need. Because we always aim to be as contemporary as possible, I also have to review the workshop and make sure the science is still accurate and up to date.

As you would expect, there is a lot of science in my job. I have a background as a research scientist, broadly in the field of genetics, so before I started at Nowgen I was already fairly familiar with a lot of the science, but I have certainly had to learn lots more since I joined! Being used to finding out about the latest research and keeping up to date is invaluable.

To find out more about Nowgen’s education work visit: http://www.nowgen.org.uk/education

To get more information on how your school can visit the teaching labs at Nowgen email Matthew at: mat.hickman@cmft.nhs.uk