Division of Genomic Outreach

Division of Genomic Outreach

Division Leader: Michael Cuccaro, Ph.D.

The mission of the Division of Genomic Outreach is to increase public awareness about genomic medicine, the importance of diverse participation in genomic research, and the emergence of ethical, legal, and social issues related to such technology. The success of genomic medicine relies on an informed and receptive community. Lack of awareness and misinformation about genomics may negatively impact research participation (slowing progress and/or increasing health disparities), hinder receptiveness to genomic medicine in healthcare (limiting benefits), and impede pursuit of careers in genomics, especially among underserved populations (decreasing employment opportunity in a growing field, slowing advancement, and hampering diverse research participation).

While studies have shown that the public is cautiously optimistic about genomic medicine, concerns and fear exist, especially in underserved populations. Scientific concepts such as “genetic variation” and “disease risk” can take on discriminatory connotations if not accompanied by basic information to reduce the potential for misunderstanding. In addition, media focus on controversial scientific topics such as cloning and stem cells have heightened concern, diverting attention from the more positive, common, and practical applications of genomics.

The goals of the Division of Genomic Outreach include:

  • Establishing mutually beneficial relationships between the local scientists and community groups, organizations, and schools
  • Meeting the genomic education needs of the community through engagement in activities and lectures
  • Increasing exposure of underserved children to natural science and careers in genomics, hence fostering interest in and pursuit of degrees in these areas

To this end, this Division has undertaken a number of programs. We initiated the Genetics Awareness Project to inform South Florida’s diverse communities about the value of genetics and its influence on personal health. This project was funded with generous support from the Life Technologies Foundation, Inc. Surveys and focus groups were conducted to assess awareness of and attitudes toward genetic research and the use of genetics in medicine. Data from these sources were used to guide educational content of the program. In all, over 50 educational sessions were conducted reaching well over 1,200 people. Sessions were available English, Spanish, and Creole to meet the diverse needs of the local population. In addition, surveys and focus groups were conducted to assess awareness of and attitudes toward genetic research and the use of genetics in medicine. Data from these sources were used to guide educational content of the program.

We are also committed to fostering the next generation of researchers. As such, we are proud to host the annual JJ Vance Memorial Summer Internship in Biological and Computational Sciences, a program that offers rising seniors from Miami-area high schools a unique opportunity to be directly involved in scientific research on a medical university campus. The interns participate in a challenging 8-week paid summer research course, working alongside diverse faculty and post-doctoral fellows at the HIHG. Students are matched with specific research interests and faculty members who mentor them. They get hands-on experience working in a real-time laboratory setting, including classroom instruction and faculty mentorship on personal career and college choice choicesmentorship with faculty. At the end, the students present and share their results at a luncheon attended by their mentors, friends, families, and donors, giving students further insight into scientific careers and responsibilities.

We have also hosted a public education event in honor of DNA day in collaboration with the Miami Science Museum. National DNA Day began in April of 2003 as a celebration of the completion of the Human Genome in 2003, as well as, the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953. Over 100 volunteers come together to assist with the event, designed for children ages 4-15, that includes several hands-on exhibits and activities. Each showcases a unique feature of DNA and genetics. Children were are able to pin their unique physical traits on a “gene tree”, solve a simulated crime mystery using DNA evidence, and even extract DNA from their own saliva, among others! Members of the Boy and Girl Scouts also receive a limited-edition activity patch for attending the event. Check back for future events hosted by the HIHG.