Several students nodded.
In 2007, Wu founded the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd). Her objective was to narrow the gap she saw between what scientists can do and what the public is aware that they can do. She felt that high school classrooms were the best conduits through which to share information about advances in genetics with the public, and so she formed a small team of scientists and educators to design lesson plans.
PgEd provides these lesson plans—made up of activities, reading materials and PowerPoint presentations on personal genetics and how it relates to things like reproduction, health care, sports, law enforcement and discrimination—to teachers, free of charge. Every so often, Wu and other team members visit schools around the country to guest-teach the lessons themselves.
When Wu isn’t talking with teenagers in her role as director of pgEd, she is teaching genetics at Harvard Medical School. At “Wu Lab,” she and her team of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research assistants and technicians study chromosome positioning and behavior and how this plays out in inheritance.
“I’ve always been involved with discussing where this field is going and how we, as geneticists, can best make sure that sequencing will be beneficial and equally accessible to everyone regardless of their socioeconomic status,” said Wu.
With increased accessibility to DNA sequencing technology, of course, comes the need to consider how society should use it responsibly. Should people be allowed to test embryos for painful, deadly diseases that develop at different stages of life? Is it okay for parents to test embryos for genetic variants that are linked to violent behavior? Wu asks these questions and others on a survey she hands out in the classes she visits.
“In their lifetime, among their friends, there is a reasonable chance that they will know someone or they themselves will be given a dilemma that involves bringing in genetic information to resolve. It is at those moments you want them to have had something in their memory to help them know that there is often not a right answer—that if they come to a decision that is good for them, then they have a right to stick by it.”
Wu likes to use the story that was the basis for My Sister’s Keeper when she teaches high school students.
Molly Nash was born with Fanconi anemia, a disease that made her body unable to repair errors in her DNA. As a result, she was at huge risk of getting cancer. Her parents searched the world for a bone marrow donor, in the hopes that their daughter might get the transplant she needed to survive, but were unable to find a match. They were essentially preparing for Molly to get sick and die, when a new technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis became available.