Genome Goes to School: A Tucson Teacher Spreads the Word About Personalized Medicine

By Susan McClure

Andrew Lettes' advanced biotechnology students at Pueblo Magnet High School in Tucson, Arizona, read Genome for a class assignment.

I’m sure at some point in your life, you had a teacher or mentor who inspired you — someone who made you passionate about a particular topic or started you on a rewarding career path. For me, it was a world history professor at San Diego State University. I was dreading having to knock out this basic requirement because every history class I had ever taken was as dry and boring as Saturday afternoon TV programming on PBS (sorry, PBS, but you know it’s true). Then I met Professor Chick. His passion for the historical events that shaped our society and his delivery style energized every student in the class. His lectures on World War II were so gripping, so emotionally and graphically told, that we would jump to our feet and give standing ovations at their conclusion. He didn’t just recount history, he brought it to life. He added perspective. He made us think. He taught me what it means to be a compelling storyteller — something we strive for in every issue of Genome.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable teacher who is having a similar impact on his students. Andrew Lettes teaches advanced biotechnology at the Pueblo Magnet High School in Tucson and was recently named “Arizona Teacher of the Year” by the Arizona Technology Council.

He reached out to me after his wife brought a copy of Genome’s inaugural issue home from her doctor’s appointment. He said he was impressed that it aimed to inform consumers and professionals about what personalized medicine can and cannot do — right now. Lettes had his class read Genome editor-in-chief Jeanette McCarthy’s introductory column, “Welcome to the Future of Medicine,” which he said prompted a great discussion about the direction of personalized medicine and genetic testing.

Lettes requested a classroom set of Genome’s subsequent issues and is using the magazine as a teaching tool in his weekly sustained silent reading activity. “After three weeks, students are reading your article on the microbiome. I never thought I would write ‘fecal slurry’ on my whiteboard,” he joked. His class will be giving presentations on bacterial resistance to antibiotics — in particular, C. difficile — and he said that the article goes “hand in glove” with their course work (he’s a bit of a jokester).

At Pueblo Magnet High School, 85 percent of students are on a free or reduced-fee lunch program. In that environment, it must take an impressive, enthusiastic teacher to get kids excited about a subject that requires an advanced degree for job placement. Lettes’ passion for science is only overshadowed by his determination to give his students a shot at a scientific career. Pueblo’s advanced biotechnology students can receive three college credits in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona for a fee of $475. Sadly, in the past two years, only two have been able to cover the cost. Pueblo High Warriors Alumni Foundation established a scholarship fund to help offset the cost for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. In 2013, 18 students received credits, but Lettes lamented that 12 students who earned A’s didn’t receive them due to financial hardship.

Go here for more information about the 2014 Biotechnology Scholarship Fund and to learn how you can become a champion to kids who aspire to be our nation’s future scientists.