CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Who says you can't go back to eighth grade?
Joanna Mountain got a PhD in genetics from Stanford and returned to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school that fired her curiosity. The Piedmont Open Middle School principal, Dee Gardner, met her at the front door with a hug.
"Oh, I have to hug her. She's a Piedmont kid," said Gardner, offering the geneticist a peek at her black-and-white photo in the school yearbook.
Mountain was in Charlotte for a panel at the American College of Medical Genetics. But she stopped by Piedmont to make a bigger impression on a group of about 70 science students assembled in Piedmont's old gym, now a media center.
"It was an important place for me," said Mountain. "I had a lot of fun here."
She went on to study mathematics as a Stanford University undergrad and then to apply that math to a doctorate in genetics. She now works for 23 and Me, a Silicon Valley company that performs personal DNA analysis and links the results to family and health history, contributing to research addressing diseases like Parkinson's.
"We are just at the beginning of understanding what our DNA means," Mountain told the assembled students. "I love this idea of studying a hidden piece of us that no one has been able to see until recently."
The audience included members of Piedmont's Science Olympiad team, which recently won first place overall in a regional tournament and now moves on to the state finals next month.
Two members of the team, eighth grader Arthur Sanchez and seventh grader Solomon Wiggins, are studying heredity. They were familiar with 23 chromosomes but not 23 and Me, the company.
"It's the concept you can learn what your family was back in the good old days," said Sanchez, chuckling.
The underlying message that the students sitting in the media center could someday themselves become the next wave of researchers was not lost on them.
"There were three kids that were sitting in the audience who want to be geneticists or researchers or doctors, so they were asking, 'Can I be a part of this,'" said Melanie Bell, a science teacher and Science Olympiad coach.
Dr. Mountain tells the students genetics is about making connections. She remains connected to Piedmont Middle School.
You might even say it's part of her DNA.