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UVM s Hunter on Introducing Microarrays to Undergrads and High School Kids

Timothy Hunter
Microarray Facility
University of Vermont

At A Glance

Name: Timothy Hunter

Title: Manager, Microarray Facility, University of Vermont

Professional Background: 2002-present, manager, Microarray Facility, University of Vermont; 1996-present, manager, DNA Analysis Facility, Vermont Cancer Center, University of Vermont; 1990-1995, senior researcher, Genetic Toxicology Lab, University of Vermont.

Education: 1983 — BA, biology, chemistry, State University of New York, Plattsburg.

For the past two years, the Vermont Genetics Network has spearheaded a Microarray Outreach program that aims to bring microarray technology to academic institutions throughout the state of Vermont.

Following a trial run of the outreach project at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2003, VGN held outreach programs with St. Michael's College, Middlebury College, and Johnson State College in 2004, and Green Mountain College and Norwich University this year. For the spring semester of 2006, VGN will be holding a microarray outreach program at Castleton State College.

To learn more about this program and how it is making microarray technology more accessible to Vermont students, BioArray News spoke with Tim Hunter, who manages UVM's microarray facility and is a member of VGN's microarray outreach team, earlier this month.

There has been some talk of microarray technology moving from post-graduate to undergraduate and even into high school biology classes ...

From an educational standpoint — that's exactly what we've been doing; disseminating this kind of technology at those levels here in the state.

So how do you get your funding?

Well, we are nonprofit, because we are in an academic setting — we are here at the University of Vermont. And this was a grant that was secured by two [UVM] investigators, Christopher Allen [who heads VGN's Outreach Core] and Judith Van Houten [head of VGN's bioinformatics core], and it was really a grant to build infrastructure and networks for genetic research.

Outreach is an aim or component of the grant, and part of that is to then disseminate these kinds of technologies to other institutes or colleges here in the state of Vermont, and then not only to disseminate on an educational level but also to provide access to these types of technologies — [serving] kind of like a mother institute.

The state of Vermont is not a big state, but UVM, being the research institution of the state, is a really critical [resource] for other institutes and colleges for the success of their research interest, and in a sense the institutes themselves, so that they have access to these technologies.

What kind of resources do you have at your fingertips?

We're a team of about five right now. I have been serving as the interim coordinator of the program, but we have just hired someone that will be [handling] some of the organizational aspects of this program so that I won't have that burden. I also manage two research facilities here at UVM.

But we are a team of five instructors that kind of have varying backgrounds. Two are research technicians; two are university professors, and one is faculty with a focus on bioinformatics. So we are really a team that, first of all, I feel complements each other well, but also I feel that [we] can really look from all perspectives at this kind of technology — from the applied to the theoretical to the actual hard work — the bioinformatics.

When you are reaching out to the students — undergraduate and below — what has been your plan of attack?

Well, let's address the undergraduates first. This module that we've put together is to address and then to deliver. It's really a unique program because not only do we deliver this module, but we also go in and assess their laboratories as they are and then put together customized [kits] that will allow us to deliver this kind of educational module. [The kits] stay there for subsequent [lessons] by one of their instructors there, but obviously the instrumentation that's left there is to be used in genetic research endeavors.

Before I tell you about how we bring this to undergrads, I should say it took us about a year to put this all together. We met and we developed a microarray experiment that we thought would be doable and transferable from site to site. We chose yeast as our model organism, and since Vermonters are very conscious of environmental issues, we thought the use of DMSO — an agent which is used in the paper industry and also in the past in ointments and stuff — would be a great example of looking at what the effects are of this chemical on transcriptional patterns in yeast. And so we did a control versus treated, et cetera.

The real critical thing here is making sure that the students understand what happens at every step of the way. So each class starts out with a tech talk or chalk talk, and that's basically all of the technical aspects behind it, like what each chemical is doing, so they understand. One of the things that we stress is that to be able to troubleshoot, you really have to be able to understand what is happening at each step. And then what we also provide is the actual theoretical overview information which is presented through PowerPoint [slides]. Then obviously the hands-on performance of the experiment [is done].

It's generally a six-week course that's integrated into existing curricula. Or in some cases we have offered it as a standalone mini-course. It depends on the institute we are visiting and the way they wish to have it delivered.

Do they have their own instrumentation or do you bring that along?

We provide any kind of instrumentation that's needed for the processing of these samples, up to the actual scanning of the chips of the instruments. We have the Affymetrix GeneChip platform. It's a $200,000 platform and we can't purchase those for each site. And that isn't the purpose. The purpose is to really teach them the technology and say, "Look, the infrastructure has been built here. For research purposes you can access us."

The chips come back to the university. That's where they are actually hybridized and scanned and the text files are generated. But what we have done — and most institutes have taken advantage of this — is we invite them back to the university for that aspect of the experiment, so they actually get to see what's happening on the instrument, because we can't bring that instrument there.

What do you do with high school students?

High school is a little different. They don't have the background that the undergraduates have. We are kind of targeting the junior-, senior-level undergrads because this is where we think we are going to make the greatest impact. Students are either thinking about postgraduate studies or they are going to be out in the workforce pretty soon. And this is where we've had some really good success, because students that have been a part of this course have actually, because of their experiences, gone on to get jobs in the microarray workforce, or enhanced their capabilities for postgraduate studies and [it has] helped them understand some of the biomolecular tools that are available to them in their potential research as graduate students.

For a high school student, it's really to let them know what sorts of tools are available out there and how science is evolving. So basically when we do high school classes it's a one-day program, a morning, afternoon, and evening. It's usually a PowerPoint lecture followed by a hands-on, mock experiment. So we pretend we're doing it. We let them do some of the hands-on manipulations as far as loading the GeneChip, getting a feel for what a GeneChip is, and then actually scanning one in and seeing how the data is generated. We discuss how we feel that this technology is going to contribute to research today and to medicine today and tomorrow.

What has been the students' response to the technology?

[It's been] incredible. Excitement like I haven't seen. This has been the most enjoyable job I've done here because students are sponges, they literally hang next to you after class is done; they want to know more. Not only is it about the technology, but we're contacts for them. The interaction with the professors has also been incredible. Usually we have three or four professors in each class that are actually taking it right along with the students. And they are realizing the power of this technology in their research.

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