How can food production be increased in drought-stricken areas? Do people’s conceptions of genetics contribute to racism? Are there more effective ways to combat diseases such as HIV and malaria?
Welcome to the classroom of Grinnell College biology professor Leslie Gregg-Jolly, who has explored questions such as these for more than 25 years in a course she teaches on social and ethical issues related to biotechnology and genetics.
“I’m passionate about helping people understand genetic technologies and how they work in the world,” said Gregg-Jolly, whose specialties are in genetics and molecular biology, particularly DNA repair and recombination.
In 2018, she will take her course on the road, when she leads the spring semester ACM Botswana: Development in Southern Africa program as visiting faculty director. It’s something she’s wanted to do since visiting the country on an ACM faculty site visit, where she became intrigued by the Kalahari watermelon.
“There’s a lot of potential for students to connect their coursework, independent project, and volunteering specifically to their individual interests.”
“It’s a watermelon that can grow in desert conditions, which is amazing,” said Gregg-Jolly. “Local people partnered with Japanese scientists and they’ve discovered the genetic mechanism that makes the watermelons drought resistant.” Now the melon provides genetic material for plant breeding and engineering other drought-tolerant crops to improve food security.
That’s one of many examples Gregg-Jolly will discuss in Ethical and Social Issues Related to Biotechnology in Southern Africa, a course she will teach at the University of Botswana (UB) as part of the ACM program.
While the class will begin with a brief overview of the biological basis for the technologies, the main focus will be on considering the ways genetics gets used — or misused, at times — by society.
“There are general themes that emerge — how do people use information to construct difference, for example, related to racism in grouping people,” she said, which will bring topics such as politics, immigration, and human rights into the class discussions.
Issues related to economics, development, and public health will be key topics in the course. “Botswana has invested heavily in their healthcare systems and they’re tackling a huge HIV rate with genetic biotechnologies to assist in HIV risk assessment and treatment,” Greg-Jolly noted. Biotechnology is also being applied to the country’s mining industry, where bacteria are being used in extracting trace elements in gold and uranium mining and algae is used to treat acid mine drainage.
In addition to teaching her course, Gregg-Jolly will supervise the students’ independent study projects. An elective course at UB and Setswana language study round out the curriculum, and the program includes excursions to different parts of Botswana and to South Africa. Many students also take advantage of opportunities to volunteer for community service with local non-profit organizations.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for students to connect their coursework, independent project, and volunteering specifically to their individual interests, no matter what their major is,” Gregg-Jolly said. “That’s a real strength of the Botswana program, and I’ll help and encourage them to do that as much as possible.”