One May morning, Atiyah Schroeter began her first period biology class at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. by introducing a guest speaker. Dr. Ting Wu, she explained to 16 ninth graders sitting at lab tables, is an expert on genetics from Harvard University.
It was clear from the handcrafted double helices dangling from the white board that the class was in the midst of studying genetics. The students were well versed in DNA and understood that its two twisting strands consisted of nucleotides called guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine—or, G, A, T and C, for short.
But Wu wanted to talk about something that is not often included in high school science curriculums. She was at the school to discuss personal genetics—and the ethical and legal issues that come about when individuals are able to have their DNA sequenced.
The geneticist is small in stature, but even with a laid back and conversational style, she commands the teenagers’ attention.
“How many of you have seen the movie My Sister’s Keeper?” she asked.
A few hands went up.
“Would you like to summarize for the class what that movie was about?” Wu asked a young girl a few rows back.
“Well, basically, the older sister had cancer and the younger sister was the only one who had the type of organs or blood to match the older sister, so they wanted to use her organs or blood. But the little sister didn’t want to anymore, so she got a lawyer. They just show all the struggles the girl with cancer went through with her family,” said the student.
“Did you know that was based on a real-life story?” said Wu.
Wu pointed to a photograph of Molly Nash, a little girl in blue jean overalls, kissing her baby brother, Adam, projected onto a screen in the front of the classroom. “Do you want me to tell you this story?” she asked.