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Monmouth U. Students Partner with Local Elementary Schools to ‘Unravel’ DNA

The Phifer-Rixey Lab, an evolutionary biology lab at Monmouth University, recently wrapped up their outreach program, “DNA Unraveled.” The project began when Megan Phifer-Rixey, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, and biology student Brian Reiss ’18 were looking for a way to engage with young students and encourage them to consider careers in STEM.

Phifer-Rixey and Reiss secured a grant from the European Society for Evolutionary Biology to fund an interactive workshop extracting DNA from strawberries with everyday items in local elementary schools. After a pilot workshop, biology student Katherine Banfitch ’18 launched the project, which included all fourth grade classes in Ocean Township and students at Amerigo A. Anastasia School in Long Branch.  Banfitch has continued to volunteer her time during the spring semester to help with workshop kit prep and distribution.

During each school visit, Banfitch led a discussion on DNA,  highlighting the scientific process and the significance of DNA in everyday life.  Teams of undergraduates guided students through the DNA extraction, giving them a chance to be scientists.

Through on-campus collaborations with the School of Social Work’s “Kids at College Day” and Associate Professor of Biology Pedram Daneshgar, Ph.D., the program expanded to more schools across New Jersey. In total, approximately 500 students participated in the workshop.

According to Phifer-Rixey, the program provided an opportunity for Monmouth undergraduates to develop mentorship skills and engage with the community. Over 50 undergraduates volunteered their time, including students from introductory biology and evolution courses, the Phifer-Rixey Lab, and the NextGen Science club.

Banfitch received the Department of Biology Service Award (2017-2018) for her work and will be pursuing a master’s degree in teaching at Monmouth this summer.  In addition to the workshops, local participating teachers were provided with kits so that they can repeat the project with future classes at low cost.