It's All In the Genetic Code

It's All In the Genetic Code

Potomac students organize projects to raise awareness about genetic disorders.

Lucy Gibson was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 4 years old. Now 12, Gibson still feels the frustration of having a condition that affects her daily routine.

"I still think that it interrupts everything that I do," said Gibson, a seventh grade student at the Potomac School in McLean. "Like yesterday at Red and Blue Day, I had to stop what I was doing because I felt really tired."

Gibson recently learned a lot more about diabetes when her seventh grade science class completed a unit on genetic disorders. Potomac science teacher Robin Gross had her students write an extensive paper on the genetic disorder of their choice, and then required them to do a follow-up project to raise awareness about their chosen disease. Students were permitted to work in teams or individually.

Gibson worked with two of her classmates, Claire Ball, 13, and Lily Oyler, 13. The three girls decided to visit Potomac School second- graders for their follow-up project.

"We really wanted to educate them," said Oyler, who chose to study diabetes because her grandmother has the disease. "We visited three classes over the course of three days, and I really think we raised awareness."

Gross said she was impressed that Lucy Gibson decided to study a disease that personally affected her.

"I have the utmost respect for her," said Gross. "She learned things about something that she had, and those things are not always pleasant to learn in that situation."

GIBSON SAID PARTICIPATING in this project enabled her to uncover some new information about her disease.

"There is a huge autoimmune factor," said Gibson. "No one ever told me about that… it can definitely lead to all of this stuff."

This was the first year that diabetes was included in Gross' list of potential genetic disorders for her students to study.

"I added it because they recently found a genetic link to diabetes," said Gross.

Gibson, Oyler and Ball found the second grade students to be receptive to their presentation on diabetes. To get them interested, the girls told the second graders that Snow White was a diabetic.

"They were the perfect age group," said Ball. "They were not too young to be afraid, and not too old to be like 'we're not afraid.'"

The girls were also surprised to find out that one of the second grade students had diabetes.

"We asked if any of them knew someone with diabetes and she raised her hand," said Gibson. "She didn't know some things about it, but she did know a lot."

SOME OF GROSS' other students found ways to raise money for research for their chosen genetic disorders. Jack Rhodes, 13, worked with two of his classmates and came up with the idea to sell cystic fibrosis wristbands.

"We were thinking about different ways to raise awareness, and since everyone was selling something and the 'Live Strong' bracelets are so popular, we came up with the idea for wristbands," said Rhodes. "We sold a little over 100 bracelets, but we also got a lot of donations."

Sam Bergman, 13, chose a disease that no one else chose – Huntington's chorea. Bergman chose the disease because of a book that he read a few years ago called "Double Helix."

"It's about a boy whose mother has Huntington's," said Bergman, who did extensive research on the disease using the Internet.

In order to raise money for Huntington's research, Bergman recruited sponsors and biked a certain distance for each one.

"I tried to think of something that I'm good at and that I enjoy," said Bergman.

He found the experience so rewarding that he has decided to use it as his bar mitzvah project, and to continue cycling for the cause.

"I'm going to try to keep this going and make it a year-round thing," he said.

Zach Hublitz, 13, also combined an activity that he likes with his follow-up project. Hublitz studied hemophilia, and to raise awareness, he strung tennis rackets to raise money for research.

"I play a lot of tennis," said Hublitz, who strung 11 rackets for his cause. "I really liked this project a lot. It was fun to learn about something that I was interested in, and I really liked the follow-up project because I enjoy stringing rackets."

Hublitz said he chose hemophilia because "it stood out as more interesting," and that he learned a lot about the disease that he did not know before.

"If a person has a severe case of hemophilia they can just start bleeding for no reason at all," said Hublitz. "If a person has a mild case of hemophilia, they can't play any contact sports at all."

Conrad Stansbury, 13, decided to study Alzheimer's because his grandmother was afflicted with the disease.

"My grandmother had it, but I guess that's not saying much because lots of people do," said Stansbury. "I like learning about the brain."

Stansbury said he was surprised to learn that contrary to popular belief memory loss is not necessarily the first sign of Alzheimer's.

"It's actually more cognitive," he said.

For his follow-up project, Stansbury created an educational program that involves a simulation exercise and study of his written report.

"I really enjoyed this project," said Stansbury. "If I had the opportunity, I would definitely do it again."

Kylie White, 13, took one of her favorite hobbies – knitting – and put it to use in her follow-up project.

"I studied sickle cell anemia, and I knit cell phone cases and iPod socks," said White. "I charged $5 each and raised $81."

White said she chose to study sickle cell anemia after hearing about it on television.

"Last year I saw it in the news and I got really interested in it," she said.

Collectively, the Gross' students were able to raise almost $2,000 through their various follow-up projects.

"While the numbers are great, I tried not to focus on that because really any small amount was good," said Gross. "It was much more about the community projects and the learning process."

For Lucy Gibson, learning more about her own disease left a lasting impression on her.

"This is my favorite project that I have ever done," said Gibson. "I learned so much and it was really fun."