Trying to Avoid Microaggressions When Teaching Genetics

If you’ve been part of this world for the past few years and you’re not hiding under a rock somewhere (while I might understand that desire, I know it is impractical) you have heard of political or societal impacts of trans rights.  As I was teaching genetics this year to first year high school biology classes during a pandemic I realized that the way we teach genetics in school is rife with microaggression land mines and the language we use to teach genetics could be more up to date and inclusive.  As a cis/hetero female I realized that the terms used or the way questions are posed to students don’t fully encompass the lived experience any more due to medical advancements in IVF and artificial insemination or the fact that the 1950s idyllic nuclear family has never truly been representative of the lived experiences for students.  Add in the growing visibility, understanding and acknowledgment of LGBTQIAA+ individuals and our genetics curriculum really needs some updating.

To begin transforming my language in the way I teach genetics I decided to delve into the genetic component and physiological expression of those genes when determining sex or gender identity.  In this research what I found was an incredibly complex interplay between what the genes say you are and how they interact or are read by other code to create this balance between hardwired genetic code and the much more variable system of gene expression (in order not to bog this down too much if you’re more interested in gene expression go here). 

While I’m attempting to include some of the scientific research in this field it is vastly complex, still not completely understood, and I’m just scratching the surface of the science so please seek out other more complete resources if you still have questions. 

There are primary sexual characteristics which are directly related to the gonad development of a fetus and secondary sex characteristics which are things like breasts, Adam’s apples or body hair.  Primary sex characteristics are generally determined by genetic composition whereas secondary sex characteristics are often determined by hormones.  The genetic composition influences the hormonal release but changes in a genetic composition can dramatically affect the physical manifestation of those genes. 

For a small taste of the complexities in understanding this area I just want to point out there are chromosomes such as the X and the Y that we teach and you’ve probably heard about that determine a person’s sex but the differentiation between these chromosomes being expressed involves genes like Sox9 which is found on chromosome 17; a chromosome that also contains genes that could code for colorectal and ovarian cancer as well as osteoporosis and myocardial infarction (AKA heart attack). 

Sox9 is activated by the male determining factor SRY on the Y chromosome to inhibit the ovary production and actually begin the degradation of the female Müllerian duct in a chromosomal male embryo.  However, it has been shown that Sox9 can create male gonads in an embryo even in the absence of SRY (AKA the Y chromosome). In essence someone may be XX but have XY primary sex characteristics.

The RSPO1 gene, located on chromosome 1 (which can code for cataracts, hypothyroidism, and migraines FYI), also plays a role in ovary determination and creation but mutations or disruptions in the RSPO1 gene can create physical males also in the absence of SRY genes and the Y chromosome. 

Sox9 is considered an anti-female gene and RSPO1 is considered a female promoting gene so mutations in either of these genes or changes in time or intensity of gene expression can alter the physical appearance of the XX or XY chromosome pair.

If that hasn’t totally lost your mind that’s great!  The take away though is that sex determination and gender identity are a balance between many factors and not as cut and dry as anyone would have you think.  It is a constant tug of war between genes that operate to promote maleness or femaleness and genes that operate towards “anti-maleness” or “anti-femaleness” and this tug of war can create a seemingly infinite spectrum of phenotypes or physical manifestations of sex and gender.  If that wasn’t enough another compounding factor to the sex determination and differentiation schematic is that this balance changes over the course of time.  It is not set in stone during embryonic development and then just continues that trajectory until death.  There are changes to this balance from both internal and external factors; certain dietary or environmental factors have been labeled as “hormone disruptors” that can cause changes to how hormones operate even when the genetics is “normal.” 

As pointed out in the 2009 article “A Question of Gender” Ludbrook identifies three components to physical sex development: chromosomal sex determination, gonadal sex, and anatomical sex that “for a typical woman or man all of these features are in concordance….for intersex people, chromosomal, gonadal or atomic sex is discordant.” 

All of that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of how to re-write questions like “a man with brown hair and a woman with blonde hair have kids, what’s the probability of having a kid with brown hair?”  Or things like “a woman who is heterozygous for hemophilia has children with a normal man, what is the probability that one of their children will have hemophilia?”  By using words like “man” or “woman” and “boy” or “girl” we are continuing to perpetuate the fallacy that sex and gender fall into binary categories where the science, even with questions still to be answered, clearly point to that is not the case.   

While this is an ongoing process I have decided to add “chromosomal” in front of any sex identifier I give when discussing genetics problems.  I am also going to change terminology to just indicate the gametes (egg and sperm in humans) that fuse to create a zygote instead of using “man” or “woman” and “mom” or “dad”.  My hope in just using the names of the haploid cells will also be more inclusive of students who may not have relationships with biological parents or may be products of other reproductive strategies where their biological lineage may not be the same as their familial unit.  My goal is to help affirm both student identities and relationships while also showing that sex, gender, and gender identity are a lot more nuanced than the chromosomal composition of any one cell (which, by the way different cells in the same organism can have different chromosomal makeups…who knew?! But we’ll save that discussion for another day).


Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature, vol. 518, no. 7539, Feb. 2015, p. 288. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/518288a. 

LUDBROOK, LOUISA. “A Question of Gender.” Australasian Science, vol. 30, no. 10, Nov. 2009, p. 21. EBSCOhost, 

“Human Genome Project Information Archive1990–2003.” Chromosome 1: Human Genome Landmarks Poster, 

“Human Genome Project Information Archive1990–2003.” Chromosome 17: Human Genome Landmarks Poster, 

Sekido, Ryohei, and Robin Lovell-Badge. “Sex Determination Involves Synergistic Action of SRY and SF1 on a Specific Sox9 Enhancer.” Nature, vol. 453, no. 7197, June 2008, p. 930. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/nature06944. 

Trevor Project, The. Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth. 


What is the new moon?

Do you ever look up into the night sky and wonder? What is going on up there? Are there aliens? Still looking. Are we made up of stardust? Yes. Are we the center of the universe? In a manner of speaking. Is the moon made of cheese? No. And lastly, why does the moon look different over the course of the month? In this post I include a simple demonstration to help show you the moon phases and discuss what the new moon is since the moon seems to magically disappear and reappear throughout the month.

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Five STEM Women You Might Not Know

Women have made incredible contributions to the science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively known as STEM) fields since the earliest we can recall or have on record but their names have often been left off their contributions or been glossed over in favor of their male contemporaries who used women’s research or contributions to solidify their own work.  As a woman in the sciences myself, I find it’s important to show that STEM is for everyone.  I tell my students that science was the only place where I could ask questions, be wrong, and it still be important to understanding what was going on. 

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No Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothing

Disclaimer: There is UNSAFE weather. If the weather is potentially dangerous (i.e. hurricane) then no type of gear is good enough.

Disclaimer: I promise this is not an ad, but I do have quite a few recommendations for gear that we use here at the Messy house.

I’m reminded of a phrase my ecology professor and my advisor once told me in college: “A bad day in the field is better than a good day in the lab.” It was something that always stuck with me because being outside doing field work was always more fun for me than being stuck inside the lab either doing the analysis of said field work or working in one of the other labs on campus (i.e. genetics or microbiology).

I started my college career thinking I would be going into forensics. I had wanted to be Dana Scully but when I realized I had to be an MD to be an ME (like actually go to med school and work with live patients) I decided that wasn’t for me so then I thought I would be a forensic scientist (think Abby from NCIS before Abby from NCIS existed) but then realized I’d spend too much time staring at a microscope which wasn’t my strength. My college was a little strange in the fact that as first year students we had to conduct research under a professor so I worked with the professor who would be my first advisor on small mammal tracking, habitat fragmentation and I loved it. Being outside, didn’t matter the weather, setting and looking at tracking plates for small mammals was the best time I had during my first year at college and that set me up for my degree in environmental sciences and my senior research project on small mammals published and presented at the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting.

That’s what made me want to write this. I think many of us have gotten too comfortable and unwilling to go outside when it’s not “perfect” weather. Sometimes that means it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet; it’s too SOMETHING. I want to encourage you to go outside and take children or other loved ones in your life outside even if the weather isn’t perfect. Start with a few minutes if you can’t manage a whole walk, sit on your front stoop or your back porch. Nature changes when the weather changes; you hear different sounds, you see different animals and you can appreciate nature’s variety.

I am known for taking the Munchkin out in all sorts of weather, especially when it’s rainy. I spent 10 days hiking the Costa Rican rainforest when I was a first year high school student (thanks to my parents and my older brother for that experience) so I had to get comfortable with getting wet and it has translated into being able to take the Munchkin out even when it’s uncomfortable.

The trick is having some good rain clothes and our favorite is the Oaki suit:

I call it her hazmat or Oompa Loompa suit; we bought it a couple years ago quite a few sizes too big because it’s got lots of ways to tighten it up and she has worn it on so many outings. She can even wear it over warmer clothes like a snow suit and it keeps her dry no matter what she’s doing. I chose bright orange so she’s easy to see no matter what environment we happen to be in (and if we accidentally end up in hunting territory). My personal favorite for low key nature walks is my Hunter boots:

I can handle my clothes being wet and I can handle getting rained on but I just cannot handle wet feet and I’ve found the Hunter boots keep my feet nice and dry (thick socks if it’s cold out) through the puddles, mud, and muck of exploring.

When you get outside in different weathers and different times of the day you’ll hear and see a different crew of living things. Not all living things like being out during the heat of the day, not all things like to be out in the rain either but you’ll hear different buzzing on a rainy summer day than you do on a dry, spring day or even a clear and cold winter day.

Each season, time of day, type of weather, wherever you live is going to have it’s own complement of critters. The only way you can experience them is if you’re willing to get out and experience the world on their terms. Human beings are lucky because we’ve created ways for us to participate in life despite whatever the natural world is doing; we’ve taken over almost every area of land, we’ve been able to modify materials to make shelters, we’ve created clothes (by the way, why did we lose the body hair just to make clothes?), we’ve found ways to heat and cool ourselves so suit up and go experience the world in all the different and wonderful ways it can be.

If you are so inclined or your child is old enough to write and interested, you can buy a Rite in the Rain notebook which is an amazing field notebook and you can jot down observations the different times you go out. This allows you (or your children) to practice making observations, you can go back and compare, see what’s different. You can compare the living things across the seasons, you can compare across times of day or types of weather.

We’ve become nature blind, we don’t see the things that are all around us and we hide from the elements when it’s not to our liking. Don’t be afraid to take some time and step outside every day, even when it’s not perfect out you’ll be amazed at the beauty you can still see outside as nature continues to buzz along even in the rain, sleet, cold, or heat.

Get outside and don’t worry, it’s ok to get a little messy!


STEM Mom Introduction

As readers may already know I am a high school biology teacher.  However you may not know that I have a bachelor of science in environmental science and a master of science in biology.  I worked for public non-profits and the private sector on my way towards becoming a biology teacher.  I have a passion for science education because at my core I am a scientist; I graduated college expecting to pursue the scientific fields and not the field of education but after the fact decided to turn my interests towards education so I ultimately took another class pursuing the “alternate route” program in my state to earn my teaching certificate.  I think this has made a difference in how I approach science education in my classroom and also with the Munchkin.

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