Media advisory: In rural and urban high schools, UB medical school project is changing students’ career ideas

Through ITEST, hundreds of students have acquired expertise in genomics and bioinformatics

Release Date: May 19, 2016 This content is archived.

Alec Freyn.

Freyn graduates this week from RIT and heads to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical sciences.

“The ITEST project was the first opportunity to do anything scientific. I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t been in the project. ”
Alec Freyn, Participant in ITEST at Westfield High School in rural Westfield New York.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – More than 100 students from underrepresented and underserved groups from 22 area high schools will present their 2016 capstone projects on genomics and bioinformatics, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, May 20, in the Center for Tomorrow on UB’s North Campus.

The event is 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, an interdisciplinary field that uses computational tools to analyze biological information. They then return to their schools, where they provide instruction to the student teams.

Through the program, students learn skills relevant to innovative research being done on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to inspire them to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The students spent all semester working on projects on genomics and bioinformatics, thanks to a $1.1 million NSF grant awarded in 2013 to Stephen Koury, PhD, principal investigator and research associate professor in the Department of Biotechnical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and New York State Area Health Education Center System, a workforce development initiative focused on increasing diversity by recruiting and training people of different genders and ethnicities for careers in health care.

Norma Nowak, PhD, UB professor of biochemistry and executive director at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, is co-principal investigator.

On-site media contact: Greer Hamilton at 516-547-1308

When: May 20th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Best time for media: 10-11 a.m. for the student poster session, and 11 a.m. to noon for Nowak’s keynote speech.

Where: Center for Tomorrow, UB North Campus (Building number 40 on this map.)

Who: More than 100 students will participate from 22 area urban and rural high schools, including Buffalo Academy of Science, Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Cattaraugus Little Valley, Eden, Frewsberg, Global Concepts Charter, Lackawanna, Newcomer Academy at Lafayette, Westfield, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Students will present an exhibit of scientific posters, which describe their studies of online gene annotation. Nowak will give the keynote speech on big data and genomic medicine. Students from Newcomer Academy at Lafayette High and their teacher, Sangeeta Gokhale, will give a presentation on bioethics.

The project serves as a pipeline for teacher and student recruitment, training and mentorship in health and the life sciences, especially genetics and genomics.

“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.”

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.

Switching from farming to genomics

When a pilot version of this project was brought to Westfield High School in 2011 in Westfield, New York, a rural community in Chautauqua County, the project exposed students to careers they had never considered. At the time, Alec Freyn, a junior at Westfield High, wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue after high school. One option he was considering was sheep farming.

“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. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t been in the project.”

The experience inspired Alec to pursue science as a career. Later this week, he will graduate from Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and molecular bioscience. He found that the skills he learned in the ITEST project could be applied to his college coursework and research.

“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 on the developmental biology of sea urchins and another 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.

When asked what advice he would give to ITEST students, he said, “Follow what you enjoy, but also expect to fail because you should be failing nine times out of 10 in science in order to know you are asking a good question.”

Freyn is now headed to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City to pursue a doctorate in biomedical sciences.

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. High school students are trained to use software tools to store, retrieve, organize and analyze biologic information.

In addition to the UB Department of Clinical and Biotechnical Sciences, the project is sponsored by the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.


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