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HHMI's 'National Experiment' Brings Genomics to Undergrads

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A new education program aims to bring genomics and other biomedical sciences to the undergraduate world. In October, Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced the creation of the Science Education Alliance, a nationwide initiative that will bring new methods for collaborative scientific instruction to undergraduates across the United States. The alliance, headquartered at HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus and staffed by HHMI employees, has already begun its pilot initiative this year with a genomics course, led by University of Pittsburgh Professor Graham Hatfull, geared toward freshmen. The alliance hopes to implement the course at 12 institutions during the upcoming academic year, with more than 700 students enrolled by 2011 across 36 colleges. HHMI plans to invest $4 million over the next four years for the initiative.

“When you look at a lot of these biomedical journals, there’s all this talk about ’omics,” says Tuajuanda Jordan, HHMI senior program officer and director of the Science Education Alliance. “Very few students know what the heck that is. The idea for our very first initiative was to offer a national experiment where the students would get exposed to genomics and bioinformatics and how those can be used to answer really cool and important questions in science.”

The pilot course aims to isolate previously uncharacterized bacteriophages and is divided into three phases. During the fall semester, students discovered and isolated the DNA of new bacteriophages; JGI performed the sequencing over winter break. In the spring, the students will use bioinformatics databases to compare and annotate their phage genomes. While the first course takes genomic diversity into account, future ones might aim to expose the students to functional genomics, Jordan says. “The hope is that they will discover new genes that have not been characterized in any other organism.”

For students, it’s a key glimpse of large-scale, collaborative scientific research. “By engaging them in really cutting-edge science at a very early age, even if they don’t want to become scientists in the long run, at least they’ve been adequately exposed to the process of doing science,” Jordan says. “By doing that you develop their critical thinking and communication skills, their understanding that science is not done in a vacuum. It’s a collaborative process, that you have to be very collegial.”

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