September 11, 2022, by Lee Mei Kee

Merdeka Lectures 2022: The Luck of (Genetic) Draw

On the 18th of August 2022, the Faculty of Science and Engineering successfully completed our session on “The Luck of (Genetic) Draw”. The session was part of the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s first Hybrid Interactive Lecture series, also known as Merdeka Lectures. It was jointly presented by Dr. Then Sue Mian, Dr. Ho Weang Kee and Dr. Eunice Ngai Siew Ching on campus, which was also live streamed to students who participated online. We were joined on campus by a total of about 70 students from Rafflesia Puchong and Frontier Learning Center, while another 10 students were connected with us online. Through the session, we hope to be able to encourage students to be part of STEAM fields and inspire them to be future scientists.

The 2-hour session began with a short video to welcome students to the session, followed by an icebreaker activity. Students were given word search puzzles with vocabulary that they would come across throughout the session. The ice breaker was also a mini competition, rewarding the fastest students to complete the word puzzle. There was also a pop quiz related to the word puzzle. The students with us were extremely enthusiastic about the competition and raced to the stage to submit their answers! We are delighted that our students today are motivated and eager to participate in learning activities.

The ice breaker was led into Dr. Then’s session, where she introduced students to some basics of DNA, genes, and mutations. She explained and provided tips on memorising the structure and nitrogenous pairs in DNA, and moved onto the more complex topic of genetic mutations and cancer, bringing up real-life examples such as Angelina Jolie’s battle with breast cancer. To provide students with a hands-on learning experience, Dr. Then conducted a DNA extraction experiment using bananas. Students followed the steps with Dr. Then’s live demonstration and were able to successfully extract DNA. The cloudy, slimy material from the experiment was actually the DNA of the banana!

Extracting DNA from bananas!

Dr. Then introducing the steps of banana DNA extraction

Diving deeper into the topic of genetic mutation and cancer, Dr. Ho explained the risk for colorectal cancer from a mathematician’s point of view. Using this example, Dr. Ho highlighted the genetic risk prediction tool as a method to predict the likeliness of developing a disease. However, it was noted that lifestyle choices also play a role in diseases. To further illustrate the role of statistics in risk calculation, Dr. Ho presented the “My Baby 8.0” machine that has an 80% accuracy. A volunteer used the machine to detect the grand prize in a pile of 100 gifts. Unfortunately, they left with a consolation prize, which Dr. Ho used to explain, “DNA is not your destiny”.

Elaborating on the effect of lifestyle choices on genes, Dr. Eunice introduced the students to the concept of epigenetics. She explained that environmental factors and lifestyle choices (for example, pollutants, food, and physical activities) can affect epigenetics and control disease predisposition. A good versus bad game between two students from each school was played, with a possibility of both students walking away with a prize. However, depending on their choices, they could both walk away empty-handed, or with only one person getting a prize. Dr. Eunice concluded her talk noting that by making good lifestyle choices, the risk of disease could become a choice instead of a chance.

The speakers wrapped up the session with a message to the students: science needs you. With more innovation and discoveries emerging as the nation develops, it is important for us to have young budding scientists to join STEAM fields. We would like to sincerely thank all the students, speakers and organising team for this highly successful event. We hope that the students were able to learn about DNA and genes, and that the session would be one of the inspirations for them to pursue further education or a career in a STEAM field in the future.

From the left: Dr Then, Dr Eunice and Dr Ho

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