Published June 16, 2016
More than 100 high school students from 22 area schools presented projects on genomics and bioinformatics at a May 20 capstone event.
The event was part of a University at Buffalo project designed to expand opportunities for students from groups underrepresented in science and technology fields.
The project is part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project, which provides high school teachers with a week of instruction at a UB workshop learning techniques in bioinformatics. When they return to their schools, they instruct the student teams.
The students spent the semester working on projects related to genomics and bioinformatics thanks to a $1.1 million NSF grant awarded in 2013 to principal investigator Stephen T. Koury, PhD, and New York State Area Health Education Center System, a workforce development initiative focused on increasing diversity in health care.
Through the program, they learned skills relevant to the innovative research being done on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The program aims to inspire them to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“During the few years the project has been in existence, we have reached 343 high school students and 56 high school teachers,” said Koury, “exposing them to the growing fields of bioinformatics and genomics and providing them with invaluable experiences that most high school students don’t have.”
Koury is a research associate professor in the Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
During the capstone event, the students exhibited scientific posters that described their studies of online gene annotation.
Nowak, executive director at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, is co-principal investigator on the $1.1 million NSF grant.
Along with instructor Sangeeta Gokhale, students from the Buffalo Engineering Awareness for Minorities program at UB — who came from several different high schools — gave a presentation on bioethics.
Now in its final year of the three-year grant, ITEST involved educators and students from 13 counties: Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Wyoming, Genesee, Orleans, Monroe, Livingston, Allegany, Ontario, Wayne and Steuben.
The ITEST project focuses on using GENI-ACT, the Genomics Education National Initiative – Annotation Collaboration Toolkit, a software tool that makes genome analysis accessible to educators and students.
In addition to the Department of Clinical and Biotechnical Sciences, the project is sponsored by the Department of Family Medicine.
When a pilot version of this project was conducted in 2010, it exposed students to careers they had never considered. At the time, Alec Freyn, a high school junior in Westfield, NY, wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue after high school.
“The ITEST project was the first opportunity to do anything scientific,” said Freyn, whose biotechnology teacher, Lon Knappenberger, was among the first teachers involved in the ITEST pilot project.
“The gene annotation I did in high school provided me with practical experience that helped with my labs,” he said. Since then, he has been involved in research projects including one at the University of Giessen in Germany, where he conducted biochemistry and virology research to investigate the response of the expression of a gene to influenza virus infection.
The experience inspired Alec to pursue science as a career. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and molecular bioscience, and he is pursuing a doctorate in biomedical sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.