Seventh Graders Explore Ethics at the Intersection of Science and Australian Aboriginal Culture

As part of an interdisciplinary unit focusing on identity, led by science teacher Angela Miklavcic Brandon and history teacher Anthony Shaker, 7th grade students heard from two members of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG): Co-Director, Engagements and Operations Azure Hermes and genome biologist Dr. Ashley Farlow. 
Based at the Australian National University, NCIG conducts research and other activities to build and maintain a genome resource for the research community. Its work uses a unique approach to partnering with indigenous communities to give them the rights and opportunity to direct and participate in the research, collection and/or return of samples now and in the future. The Centre holds 7,000 Aboriginal blood samples—the largest of its kind—and is conducting research into the genetic makeup of these samples with hopes of further understanding how research might help improve the health and wellness of this population. 
Hermes shared that this collection of blood samples could lead to innovative research; it was also collected unethically. When the samples were collected between the 1960s and 1990s, the Australian government made decisions for Aboriginal people without consulting them. Missionaries or white police forces often “gave” permission, rather than the Aboriginal people themselves. Part of NCIG’s work is identifying the family members of those whose blood was taken without consent and either confirming its use for their research or returning the samples for reburial.
“Indigenous people are poor, so leaving a blood sample behind is like an heirloom to these families,” Hermes said. “However, a lot of samples have been destroyed or buried out of respect for the families.”
Dr. Farlow spoke about his research after a family approves blood samples for that purpose. He explained the process of sequencing DNA and the abundance of information within genomes of one of the oldest communities on the planet. Many of the samples originally helped researchers find information related to blood type, but current genomic advances may help lift the burden of disease the Aboriginal people experience by seeking to understand variation within and between populations.
This identity unit demonstrates the importance of appreciating intersectionality among subjects, such as this combination of genome sequencing in science and the historical impact of the treatment of indigenous people by oppressors. By helping students to better understand how history and culture shape our individual experiences, Parker teachers create learning experiences that honor the dignity of every human being so our students can appreciate how unique identities develop.
Miklavcic Brandon said, “While studying identity, we believe it’s critical for students to hear personal experiences that connect to what they are learning. In addition, we are trying to build empathy by asking them to consider the perspectives of others and find connections to their own stories and identities.”
More information about NCIG can be found here: NCIG
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.