Jennifer Hintzsche, PhD, is America’s next science idol! So say the 329 students from 13 schools that participated in the I’m a Scientist USA “Genomics Zone,” a fun, interactive social media competition during which students got to live-chat with researchers before voting for their favorites. Hintzsche, a research associate in the labs of CU Cancer Center investigator Aik Choon Tan, PhD, and William Robinson, MD, PhD, crushed the competition to earn top honors and fabulous prize money, which she says she will use to cover a visit to her hometown of Hinkley, Illinois (population 2,054; site of the first Harlem Globetrotters game) to bring her joy of science to middle- and high-school students.
“When I signed up, my first thought was, ‘I wonder if they’ll really want to talk with nerds like me?’” Hintzsche says. Then, she says, “I thought I would get eliminated every day. I didn’t expect to win – all the other scientists were super awesome. My husband would come home and I’d be like, ‘Shhhhh! I’m watching to see if I got eliminated!”
The contest was sponsored by Genentech and Human Longevity, Inc. as a way to humanize science and scientists, and to encourage STEM education in students across the U.S. Students were in 5th grade through high school, representing schools from California, Idaho, Montana, Indiana, the Northeast, and even a homeschool alliance from Wyoming.
Hintzsche’s live-chats included trying to simplify the entirety of cancer research. “I told them, you take DNA, sequence it and try to find mutations,” she says. “Then we grow these mutations in mice and try to figure out which drugs will treat them.”
Conversations additionally included the following:
“DO you like rollercoasters?” – Student
“nope- I LOVE THEM” – Jennifer
“Me too!!! All about Six Flags!!!” – Student
“There is an awesome place in Ohio too!” – Jennifer
“What is it?” – Student
“Cedar point I think?” – Jennifer
“Whaaaaaaattttt!!!! That is even better than Six Flags, have you been on Mellenium Force?” – Student
“Yep” – Jennifer, scientist
“That is ssoooooooo CoooooL!!” – Student
Hintzsche says that when she was growing up, she didn’t know much about the world of science past what it meant to be a medical doctor. Then, “My high school chemistry teacher was hilarious and funny and explained things in a way I understood,” she says. Hintzsche started Augustina College as a premed chemistry major, but after taking a biology class her junior year, she was hooked – “I dropped the premed and went into biology,” she says. She went on to earn her PhD in biology at Northern Illinois University.
The fun contest makes Hintzsche want to find more opportunities for science outreach.
“After seeing how excited kids were, I just want to show them that scientists are normal people – I mean, we’re all kind of weird, but…” she says. “I hope it will inspire them, even if they don’t end up becoming scientists, to keep learning about science.”
To learn more about the I’m a Scientist program and how you can get involved, check out this short video. Keep on Questioning is a project of the Center for Transformative Action (CTA). The Center for Transformative Action is an independent 501(c)3 educational non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell University.