At UB Summer Workshop on Bioinformatics, High School Students Get Taste of Life Sciences of the Future

Students will perform 'detective work' on plant genome

Release Date: June 30, 2003 This content is archived.


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Local high school students will learn the basics of bioinformatics at UB this summer, studying the genomic structure of wall cress.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A decade ago, high school students who aspired to life sciences careers foresaw a future full of pipettes and beakers; today, high school students with similar aspirations are honing their skills at the computer as much as at the lab bench.

Toward that end, nine high school students will learn the basics of bioinformatics -- the interface where life science meets computational science -- at the University at Buffalo's Summer High School Workshop in Computational Science, which started today and runs through July 11.

Designed to introduce students to bioinformatics by challenging them to program computers and search a genomic database, the workshop is one of a very few in the U.S. where high school students are learning bioinformatics in a structured program.

Several of the students' high school teachers couldn't resist a chance to spend two full weeks at UB's Center for Computational Research (CCR), one of the world's top 10 supercomputing centers, and will be joining them.

Students in the workshop represent the following high schools: Amherst Central, Clarence Central, Mount St. Mary's Academy, Orchard Park Central and Williamsville East.

Participating teachers are from Mount St. Mary's Academy and Orchard Park Central High School.

"This workshop is preparing students for what molecular biology will look like in the next five to ten years," said Bruce Pitman, Ph.D., UB professor of mathematics, vice provost of information technology and a coordinator of the workshop.

"Molecular biology is becoming a quantitative science," he said. "There will always be a wet lab component to it, but, increasingly, significant expertise in computing will be required in the biological sciences.

"Computing is a tool that helps biologists get their hands around all the newly discovered genetic information, while at the same time suggesting paths for new investigations," Pitman continued. "The students in the workshop will see some of the amazing ways that this tool can work."

The students will analyze a database for the Arabidopsis thaliana genome, a small, flowering plant (commonly known as wall cress or mouse-ear cress) that is a good model system because it is well characterized, genetically.

"This is a simple system, which is relatively easy to study," said Tom Furlani, Ph.D., associate director of CCR, UB associate professor of chemistry and a workshop coordinator. "By learning the basic concepts in this system, the students will begin to understand the importance of studying the human genome, which, of course, is far more complicated and not very well-characterized."

According to Furlani, the workshop will introduce students to the kinds of tasks involved in sequence alignment, which is just one aspect of the broad field of bioinformatics.

"We'll be teaching the students how to do what is essentially detective work on this genome, where you have an unknown genetic sequence and you want to find out its function," he said.

For their final projects, three teams of students will be searching databases of known sequences to see how close a match they can find to their "unknown" sequence. Once they find one, they can begin to make inferences about its role and function in the organism.

In order to carry out the search, the students will have to write and modify computer programs as they go along.

"Bioinformatics involves a lot of customizing of programs so the students will be learning to fine-tune the program or algorithm to fit the particular problem we are asking them to address," said Zihua Hu, Ph.D., bioinformatics scientist at CCR, who is designing the programs and databases that students will access during the workshop.

At the end of the program, the students will present their findings to an audience of UB scientists, teachers, family and friends.

Guest speakers during the workshop will include Daniel Brazeau, Ph.D., director of UB's Pharmaceutical Genetics Laboratory and research assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, who will speak about the use of genetics in drug design; Marcos Betancourt, Ph.D., assistant professor at the UB Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and research scientist in the Department of Structural Biology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, who will speak about computational modeling, and David Triggle, Ph.D., University Professor in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who will discuss ethics in science.

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