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students in westfield high school

More high school students will conduct Web-based research in microbial annotation, as these Westfield High School students did in 2011.

Program to Inspire Young Scientists Expands

Published November 1, 2013

University at Buffalo scientists are expanding their innovative, hands-on training program to engage hundreds of area high school students in the thrill of cutting-edge bioinformatics discovery.

“By the time the students are done, they will probably be the experts on the particular gene sequences they have studied. It will give them that joy of discovery.”
Stephen Koury, PhD
Research assistant professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences

Bioinformatics is a rapidly growing field that provides research tools to better understand diseases at the molecular level, leading to improved health care and disease management, and facilitating a future era of individualized medicine.

Program Funded by National Science Foundation

Stephen T. Koury, PhD, research assistant professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences, and colleagues will use a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the three-year program, entitled “Western New York Genetics in Research Partnership: Expanding Exposure, Career Exploration and Interactive Projects in Basic Genome Analysis and Bioinformatics.”

They will train and support 90 teachers throughout Western and Central New York in gene sequencing techniques. The teachers will, in turn, engage 450 students in original, unscripted research, beginning in spring 2014.

Students to Explore Gene Sequences, Present Findings

Participating teachers will complete a two-week workshop at UB in microbial genome annotation. They will then pass on their new skills to selected students in their classrooms, with support from UB faculty and staff.

Throughout one academic year, the high school students will dive into the study of the marine bacterium Kytococcus sedentarius, which causes the skin disorder pitted keratolysis in humans.

After being introduced to genetics and genomics, students will conduct Web-based research in microbial annotation using IMG-ACT, a bioinformatics tool kit from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.

“We can’t say for sure what they should find,” says Koury.

“By the time they are done, they will probably be the experts on the particular gene sequences they have studied. It will give them that joy of discovery.”

During a capstone symposium, the students will present their findings to university faculty, researchers and bioscience employers.

Easy to Implement in Classrooms

Setting up this learning experience in the classroom is simple, notes Rama Dey-Rao, PhD, a collaborator on the project.

“A computer with access to Firefox is all that is needed to teach the students how to manually annotate the genes, as well as introduce them to basic concepts in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and bioinformatics,” she says.

Dey-Rao is a clinical assistant professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences who also holds a research position in dermatology.

Preparing Young Minds for Careers of the Future

The longer-term goal is to encourage students to pursue high-demand careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Therefore, the students will be mentored through the New York State Area Health Education Center System (AHEC), a unit of UB’s Department of Family Medicine that addresses health care workforce needs.

Innovative programs like this need to be “the spark that lights the fire,” says biochemistry professor Norma J. Nowak, PhD, who directs science and technology at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

“For us to be successful, we need to create an environment where children in Western New York want to get involved … one that builds their excitement toward education and training that allows them to take advantage of the job opportunities — both public and private — created through the growth of our campus,” she says.

Koury notes that new jobs on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus will likely require knowledge of biotechnology and bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field that uses software tools to store, retrieve, organize and analyze biologic information.

Program Developers Trained at Joint Genome Institute

After an initial training in this hands-on research and teaching program at the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., Koury and Dey-Rao implemented it through a UB summer program for science teachers. They quickly recognized the strength of expanding this experience to a more comprehensive program.

They are now collaborating with Shannon Carlin-Menter, PhD, research assistant professor of family medicine, who directs evaluation at AHEC; Mary Sienkiewicz, research instructor of family medicine and AHEC director; and Patricia A. Masso-Welch, PhD, associate professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences.