DNA Sequencing: STEM Girls

So a few weeks ago, Abby wandered into my room one morning and said “Mom? I need a centrifuge.” It was so off the wall, and so unexpected from a 7 year-old (but really, not so much from this particular one) it made me laugh. I tossed the quote up on Facebook as a funny, and within moments, a friend of mine who is a professor at a University here in Virginia messages me. She happened to have three centrifuges, and offered to host Abby while she conducted some experiments. In a real lab. At a university. With grad students. At 7 years old.

So off we went.

My friend Crystal has her Ph.D in biology, which is exactly what Abby wants to do, so she was positively giddy with excitement. While I kept expecting her to get nervous or be shy, she walked into that lab, put her safety glasses on, and started reading the mini-syllabus Crystal had written.


Abby carefully read the directions, and got started swabbing each of our cheeks. The task for the day was to collect each of our DNA and sequence it, and see if we were all, in fact, related. Finally, proof that they’re all mine!


Bean and Jeffrey were interested and cooperated, and we all learned about base pairs, A, G, T, C and how to grow those magical little chains of life in a lab. And to do so, we needed not only our cheeks and a carefully controlled environment, but we needed a CENTRIFUGE!


Cells broken, separated, and DNA extracted, we moved onto making the gels and letting them cook in a bath of some sort (I really should have taken notes, and Abby is outside playing or she could tell me what I’m getting wrong.)EDIT: My other awesome scientist friend, Andrea, just  informed me- “That bath you cooked them in was a PCR machine that amplified the DNA to run in the gel.” Yep. She’s right.

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While we waited for our results, we strolled around the lovely campus, and Bean chased Canadian Geese and ducks and refused to listen to me and stay away from the water, so all things were normal. It was a spectacular experience, and the fire of science-y goodness has been stoked and fed in my girl.

IMG_1589As I try and raise this child who, from what I can see thus far, has abilities far beyond my own, it’s become increasingly apparent how vital having mentors and gifted, generous friends is to provide the environment necessary. I know I simply cannot meet all of her needs, but the fact that we are in the place we are, surrounded by the people we are, is a truly great gift. The needs I can meet then become that much more enjoyable and personal to our relationship as mother and daughter. There are still days I am terrified at being her mother, honestly, but those days are fewer and further between when we can meet on our own ground, but when she knows there are no fences and she can go whatever direction she is called.

Thank you, Crystal, for making this foundational day possible for all of my kids, but most particularly for my girl, who wants to walk in those scientific footsteps. (The matching sweaters were pure coincidence. If you believe in coincidence.)

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