SANTA FE, NM--Thirteen-year-old Ross Hunt, a ninth-grader at Desert Academy here, is finding out what a career in bioinformatics is all about. He spent a recent schoolday shadowing a staff member at the National Center for Genome Resources. In fact, Hunt said he might be interested in working for the center someday.
Generating that sort of interest was just what the NCGR staff had in mind when it launched Science Outreach for Teens this school year. SCOUT, as the program is known, offers area high school students a peek into the world of genome research and bioinformatics. NCGR Communications Manager Janine Sieja Hagerman said "we would really like to see some of the high school students we're reaching come work for NCGR someday."
To start up the program, the center underwrote some costs on its own and received a $5,000 grant from the Frost Foundation, a local organization that provides funding largely to educational and public service programs.
"We hope to expand the SCOUT program for the next school year by seeking additional funding from the Frost Foundation. We are also looking for other internal and external financial sources to further develop high school and other bioinformatics educational programs," Hagerman said.
This year classes from 12 public and private high schools participated in the program. NCGR's three-hour presentations included a tour of the facility and descriptions of the center's various components including the Human Genome Project. Instructors also explained NCGR's role in computers and bioinformatics, as well as ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic research. And NCGR scientists described their own career paths, telling youngsters what they studied in school and how they got to where they are.
Students also got hands-on experience with interactive exercises that included finding certain portions of a DNA sequence from a given organism manually on paper, like a word find, and then seeing how quickly a computer could find it using tools on NCGR's Genome Sequence DataBase.
Students were also given opportunities to help set up a simple web site, participate in developing a simple software tool, or discuss and debate the ethics of genetic testing.
Addressing the bioinformaticist dearth
Hagerman explained that SCOUT fits into NCGR's mission to support the genetic research community as well as to provide outreach and education. It is one of NCGR's contributions to the development of much-needed expertise in bioinformatics.
"We decided to start this program to interest students in science and technology and specifically bioinformatics. Many high schools around Santa Fe are underserved in terms of science and technology education and have limited access to computers and advanced science classes," said Hagerman. Teachers in the community have responded positively to the program, she added.
By working with regional institutions such as New Mexico State University, Hagerman said NCGR hopes to cultivate New Mexico as a site for world-class bioinformatics education on the college level.
The Stanford Human Genome Center in Palo Alto, Calif., is another example of an education and outreach program in biotechnology and genome sciences. There, the Human Genome Educational Program was created to make the center's research available to students, teachers, and the community. The educational program is a collaborative effort among program staff, genome center scientists and technical staff, and local school teachers.
Lane Conn, the director of the Human Genome Educational Program at the Stanford Human Genome Center, explained the primary goal is to provide and facilitate public education and outreach in biotechnology and genome sciences. The program's educational focus is on genetics, molecular biology, and bioethics, with a bioinformatics initiative. Conn said, "Our efforts help prepare high school teachers and students to make informed decisions on the personal, ethical, and societal issues and questions raised by the application of biotechnology and genome science in their lives and in our society."
Both programs aim to generate more interest from students to pursue a career in genome research, and more specifically, bioinformatics. "With the current dearth of bioinformaticists, it is certainly in our best interest to stimulate home-grown talent," said Hagerman.
Hagerman said next year NCGR plans to set up a computer lab in order to offer more sophisticated training. A bioinformatics training program under development here now would be geared more toward college students or postdoctorates, but the lab would also enhance the SCOUT program by letting students spend more hands-on time learning about bioinformatics. "We may have students return for multiple visits so they can learn more in-depth material than they might in a three-hour presentation," Hagerman said.
The lab might also be used to bring professionals in for bioinformatics workshops. Hagerman explained, "if we were handling the bioinformatics for a university sequencing program we could bring people here to learn more about what we're doing for them."
NCGR is also examining the possibility that students could get community college credit for an ongoing program. "We are composing a committee of internal staff and teachers who have visited to try to devise a curriculum for next year, but all these changes are still in the discussion stages," said Hagerman.