The Biocomplexity Institute’s summer Genomics Sequencing Center program officially wrapped up as the new semester began, but some students have continued with their research throughout the fall semester.

This year, 40 students participated in the hands-on research program, which deepened the computational aspects of the program to give students more high-performance computing opportunities.

The program combines genomic sequencing lab experience with computational analysis to provide students with a rigorous, in-depth foray into the heart of biocomplexity research. This past summer, the computational portion was expanded and students were given more time for independent research. Six faculty members oversaw the research projects, which ran the gamut from cell signaling to circadian rhythms in cancer treatment.

“These students are top-drawer students,” said Stanley Hefta, director of the Genomic Sequencing Center. “We’re very fortunate to have many staying on to work with faculty members.”

The program, Hefta went on to note, is vital to students because it provides them with the opportunity to combine higher-level classroom work and apply it in a lab setting. Since most of the students plan to move on either to Ph.D. work or medical school, experiential learning with faculty mentors is sorely needed.

“We’re trying very hard to support the philosophy of the VT-shaped student,” Hefta pointed out, referring to the philosophy that drives Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries initiative, in which students’ deep knowledge in their discipline is enriched by experiential learning and technological know-how.

The GSC program allows students to focus on a significant project for both terms of the summer and often into the fall and get much-needed hands-on experience both in the lab and at the computer.

Six faculty members within the institute oversaw student research, including Associate Professor and Biocomplexity Fellow Carla Finkielstein, who holds joint appointments at the Biocomplexity Institute and in biological sciences. Finkielstein’s students focused on cancer research, particularly in using big data to uncover the most effective times for delivery of therapies against cancer. As Finkielstein noted, “The course is fantastic. Students get hands-on experiences in bioinformatics research, training usually not received until graduate school. This opens up their view of the complexity of biological problems and opens the door to the future of research.”

In Finkielstein’s lab, students worked on understanding the pathways of gene expression at different times in an effort to understand the circadian rhythms of cancer. Since melanoma cells often seem to operate asynchronously within their environments, knowing the times when genes are expressed is crucial to development of potential therapeutic pathways.

The lectures and hands-on experience are capped off at the end of the summer term with a symposium where students learn how to present and discuss data they’ve analyzed. In this way, students learn about the full range of job expectations, from performing research to analyzing the data to presenting it professionally. When the fall term begins, they’re armed with new experiences and contacts that will help them move forward along their career paths.

“I’m thankful I’ve had this opportunity to combine my interest of biology with my new computer skills,” said Abigail Workmeister, an undergraduate in biochemistry. “I’ve continued my research in an effort to understand the effects of circadian disruption on gene expression in melanoma cells. Not only have I gained practical skills and a better understanding of the immense impact that information biology is having on modern science, but I have also gained incredible mentors in my teachers and in Dr. Finkielstein, my principal investigator.” 

For a few students like Abigail, summer lingers on at the institute while they continue their research.

Written by Tiffany Trent

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