Campus News

Award to prepare WNY high school students for careers in genetics, genomics

From left: Michael Cain, Steve Koury and Brian Higgins at the announcement that UB received a $1.2 million NIH grant. Photo: Sandra Kicman

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published September 18, 2014

“Under the leadership of Dr. Koury, this program will provide hundreds of high school students with the skills they need to pursue a career in life sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where the UB medical school will be located in just a few years.”
Michael Cain, vice president for health sciences

Students from groups that are underrepresented in science and technology fields will become proficient in genomics and genetics, thanks to a five-year, $1.2 million grant to UB from the National Institutes of Health.

Rep. Brian Higgins announced UB’s receipt of the grant at a news conference earlier this week at the Behling Simulation Center on the South Campus.

The grant from the NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, establishes the Western New York Genetics in Research and Health Care Partnership, which partners with rural and urban high schools in 14 counties of Western New York in and around Buffalo and Rochester.

Stephen Koury, research assistant professor in the Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences, is co-principal investigator on the project.

The partnership serves as a pipeline for teacher and student recruitment and training and mentorship in health and the life sciences, especially genetics and genomics. It will leverage aspects of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $50 million genomic medicine investment at UB, part of the governor’s Buffalo Billion initiative.

“Through this unique partnership, students are exposed to learning opportunities which carry them into quality professional jobs that have the potential to change their lives and save the lives of others,” said Higgins. “UB is to be applauded for winning this competitive grant and leading forward-thinking community partnerships that fill a real need, both in terms of scientific discovery and developing the next generation of researchers.”

According to Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the UB medical school, the NIH grant provides teacher-training workshops for about 20 teachers a year, and will involve approximately 500 high school students in learning computer-based tools for genomic analysis.

“Under the leadership of Dr. Koury, this program will provide hundreds of high school students with the skills they need to pursue a career in life sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where the UB medical school will be located in just a few years,” Cain said.

“An exciting aspect of this program is that it focuses on the clinical and translational applications of genomics,” said Koury. “Students will learn to analyze genes that have clinical significance in human microbial pathogens, such as those that are antibiotic-resistant or especially virulent infectious diseases.”

In addition to teaching teachers and their students how to annotate genes and genomes to make discoveries about new genes, the grant will provide students with preparatory skills targeted to careers in the life sciences. Students will present their scientific findings in poster sessions at a capstone event at the end of each school year.

Local New York State Area Health Education Centers (AHECs) are integral to the project, as they recruit teachers and students, and provide support to students who want to pursue health-related careers. Area AHECs will identify internship opportunities across the region and provide education and career advisement.

“The AHEC system’s mission is to increase diversity in health professions, devoting special attention to underserved urban and rural locales, ensuring that each community gets the help it needs,” said Shannon Carlin-Menter, co-principal investigator and director of evaluation for the NYS AHEC system, based in the UB Department of Family Medicine.

Norma J. Nowak, professor of biochemistry and director of science and technology at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, is also a principal investigator on the project.

The NIH Science Education Partnership Award program will focus in the first year on rural high schools in Western New York, moving into the Rochester Public Schools in the second year and then to suburban and other urban school districts.

High schools that are invited to participate will receive intensive teacher training and technical support for advanced, hands-on scientific projects. Under the program, a subset of teachers will become master annotators, ultimately allowing for a self-sustaining network of Western New York teachers who can share expertise in teaching genomics and basic bioinformatics.

“The teachers will be learning about gene annotation, lesson-plan development and how to work with the National Center for Biotechnology Information and to use a range of new algorithmic programs to analyze gene and protein sequences,” Koury added.