The science that happens every day inside Greenwood Genetic Center laboratories is complex.
But it’s also as simple as it gets, since the world-renowned nonprofit is at the core of its mission a commitment to provide patients with exceptional care and offer hope to those fighting rare and oftentimes incurable conditions.
Center director Steve Skinner said the facility’s smallest division is largely responsible for spreading that message across every corner of the state.
“Education is right there in the middle of what we do. It’s an integral part of what we do every day, and it’s in our vision statement,” Skinner said during a VIP reception Thursday to kick off Gene Week.
Since 2010, almost 70,000 students across South Carolina have been exposed to high-level genetics education, because of the center’s two mobile science units – the 41-foot “Gene Machine” and its counterpart, a van called the “Helix Express.”
With a staff of just four, education director Leta Tribble has grown the division into one of the Genetic Center’s most visible – and popular – branches. Not only does her team help augment science curriculums by offering hands-on workshops and exhibits, but the traveling classrooms also provide an opportunity for students of all ages to learn about careers in the field.
“We’re here to provide, encourage and enhance genetic literacy and understanding. We also introduce students to biotechnology and laboratory workplace skills,” Tribble said. “These are skills that if you walk into one of our diagnostic labs, you would see the very same equipment that they’re using.”
To date, Tribble said, the Genetic Center’s education team has visited 42 of the state’s 46 counties – many of them on repeated trips.
Missy Codington, a biology teacher at the private Laurens Academy, said having the Gene Machine on campus has given students at the small school an unparalleled experience, sparking several to pursue professional opportunities within the life sciences industry as a result.
Codington took a graduate level course with Tribble in 2011 as part of the Genetic Center’s summer school classes for educators, where she got to see the Gene Machine.
“I was just in awe of what the mobile lab could accomplish,” Codington said. “It has been a blessing to my school ever since because, for one thing, we are a very small school … It’s just really meant a lot to our students. They look forward to that every year.”
The Genetic Center’s educational outreach programs also might have birthed a national initiative. Morgan Nichols, who was named 2019 Miss South Carolina, recalled her interactions with the mobile laboratories while a high school student.
The Lexington resident developed a plan to connect students with STEM pathways – understanding that jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will not only power the state’s economy, but ensure future generations of workers are equipped for the jobs of tomorrow.
Nichols, who took a tour of the Genetic Center campus on Thursday, said her time aboard the Gene Machine was a formative moment in her life, inspiring her to pursue a degree in the discipline from Clemson University.
“Going into the gene lab in AP biology really sparked my interest and catalyzed me to go into my genetics degree,” Nichols said.
Nichols will compete for the Miss America 2020 title on Dec. 19. The competition will be held at Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut and airs live at 8 p.m. on NBC.
“I am headed to Miss America on Dec. 19 to really just bring this to the national level, to show students that they can go into science, that they can be a geneticist, that they can work in a lab and find these amazing cures and help make an impact on their community,” she said.