Published June 13, 2018
More than 230 high school students from 20 area schools presented projects on genomics and bioinformatics at a May 22 capstone event.
The event marked the third year of the Western New York Genetics in Research and Health Care Partnership, part of a University at Buffalo project designed to expand opportunities for students from groups underrepresented in science and technology fields.
Funded by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the project is intended to serve as a pipeline for teacher and student recruitment, training and mentorship in bioscience, with a particular focus on genetics.
It is designed to support career paths for students in both scientific research and the health professions.
Faculty from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the New York State Area Health Education Center System (NYS AHEC), a unit of the Department of Family Medicine, recruited high school teachers and trained them on learning techniques in bioinformatics during a summer workshop.
The teachers were trained on using GENI-ACT, the Genomics Education National Initiative – Annotation Collaboration Toolkit, a software tool that makes genome analysis accessible to educators and students.
The program exposes its participants to authentic scientific research, says Stephen T. Koury, PhD, research associate professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences and co-principal investigator on the NIH SEPA grant.
“When they begin to work on a gene annotation, they are told they will need to collect data about the gene on which they are working and formulate a hypothesis from that data about what function the product of that gene mostly has,” he notes.
“It is clearly different than the typical high school biology lab exercise where students follow a set protocol to get a result that illustrates a particular concept,” Koury adds.
“Hopefully this experience gives them the feeling of what it is like to use critical thinking skills to interpret data.”
During the capstone event, the students exhibited scientific posters that described their studies of online gene annotation.
“The capstone experience reinforces the feeling of their being scientists as they prepare a poster describing the results of their research and then present that research to other students, teachers and UB faculty in a way that is typical of scientific interchange at meetings,” Koury says.
Rama Dey-Rao, PhD, clinical assistant professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences, spent much of the capstone event circulating to each poster display and providing feedback to the student presenters.
“The most important feedback I was giving the students was that they were now part of the research fraternity where we must critique the science such that we meet the high standards expected from scientists,” she says.
“I told them that science was all about learning together, and while they had done a marvelous job, they had much to learn and to be excited about,” Dey-Rao added. “I told them that limitless possibilities faced them ahead.”
Dey-Rao, a senior research scientist in microbiology and immunology, says many students have approached her after each capstone event to express their enthusiasm for the project.
“If the students had one takeaway from this experience, I hope it would be that the project allowed them to get a feel for science and allowed them to be analytical, find evidence for their hypotheses and to question assumptions,” she says.
“I hope they will be able to analyze anything and everything in life and make judgments based on evidence.”
Some of the student participants found the research experience to be both eye-opening and reassuring.
“I am interested in going to medical school, so this was really helpful in giving me an idea of what I would be going into,” says Mary Cooper, a West Seneca East Senior High School freshman. “It is really cool to feel like I am a scientist already, and I am not even in college yet.”
Joshua Kiswani, a Westfield Academy and Central School sophomore, worked on a DNA analysis of hair samples purported to be from “yeti” and verified other researchers’ findings that they actually came from a Tibetan Blue Bear.
“I am still exploring what career path I want to take, but conducting the research and presenting it definitely refined skills that will serve me well in any profession,” he says.
She is executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences and founder and CEO of Empire Genomics LLC.
Shannon M. Carlin-Menter, PhD, director of evaluation for NYS AHEC and a research assistant professor of family medicine, is co-principal investigator on the NIH SEPA grant.