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A sequence of festive events: ‘Gene Gnome’ delivers holiday hijinks to St. Jude

By Mike O'Kelly

Gene Gnome

Gene Gnome playfully replaces the name of Hartwell Center Director Geoff Neale, PhD, with his own outside Neale’s office.

The new employee in the Hartwell Center for Biotechnology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital reported for his seasonal post the first week of December. Through a festive sequence of holiday hijinks, he’s already made quite an impression.

He was first spotted atop a plastic toy golf cart in a half-minute video on the hospital’s internal social media platform. His popularity has grown as the “Gnome Away from Home” has settled into his digs in the Hartwell Center’s location in the new Shared Resource Center building.

Gene Gnome—a 15-inch floppy gnome whose body mostly consists of a gray conical hat and long, slender candy-cane striped legs—has jumped into his new role with a work ethic rivaling Santa’s elves. He’s been featured in photos and short video clips helping the team submit samples for sequencing, overseeing genome sequencing runs and keeping the campus safe by undergoing COVID-19 swabs.

But Gene isn’t all work—there’s been time for reindeer games with a side of mischievousness. He enjoyed the hospital’s campus display of Jude Lights, sipped on hot chocolate in a breakroom and even tried to give himself a promotion. Gene was seen sliding the nameplate of Hartwell Center director Geoff Neale, PhD, out from his door. Gene tried replacing it with his own name. Neale had no hard feelings and gave some career advice.

“Gene, I have to admire your ambition. I would be happy to show you the ropes, and we’ll see if it’s really a good fit for you or not,” Neale joked in an email.

Gene has been a source of amusement and team pride this month—the result of an effort by Hartwell Center staff to stir some holiday cheer among themselves and fellow scientists in the Shared Resource Center, which opened in July.

photo of Daniel Darnell and Gene Gnome

Daniel Darnell, Hartwell Center, and his wife, Stephanie, had the idea of spreading some holiday cheer through the antics of Gene Gnome.

Daniel Darnell, a genome sequencing analyst in the Hartwell Center’s Genome Sequencing Facility, first had the idea of an elf named Gene in a lab coat. But his wife, Stephanie, suggested using a gnome and calling him Gene Gnome. Even better, the Darnells had a gnome sitting around as a holiday decoration that was gifted to them last year.

Darnell has posted daily Gene updates since December 4. Using photos of the hospital campus and the Shared Resource Center as a backdrop, Darnell filmed the first video. It showcased Gene riding across campus from the Hartwell Center’s old location to its new one—thus the tag “Gnome Away from Home.” But Gene is no Kevin McCallister who’s been left home alone. He’s right at home with his Hartwell Center colleagues and the research staff community, who look forward to the updates.

“It’s kind of taken off a little bit, and I think it’s a fun thing especially with all the changes we’ve dealt with this year,” Darnell said. “It’s been a nice and lighthearted way to share our department’s work with the institution.”

The Hartwell Center provides an array of high-throughput resources and advanced biotechnology tools to help researchers accelerate discoveries. Gene has showcased some of these services in the posts, including a new method of submitting samples via QR codes.

“Gene has been a really nice way to connect people not just on campus but also in the remote workforce,” Darnell said. “It gives them a chance to see campus and parts of new buildings like the Shared Resource Center, which was completed in the middle of the pandemic.”

Gene’s standard-issue facemask is one of Darnell’s old ones, which he was going to discard after wearing it for an extended time. He simply cut a small square of the mask, rerouted the ear loop and stuck it above the gnome’s fluffy white beard with some double-sided tape.

While the days are running out on Gene’s holiday work, Darnell’s wife is awaiting his return.

“She wants him back,” Darnell said. “I told her, ‘He’s Gene now. He might be a real St. Jude employee before this is done.’”


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