Today: Jun 25, 2024

Computer science faculty host Bioinformatics workshop

Braden Saint-Val – News Writer

The university’s computer science faculty, in collaboration with the University of Connecticut, organized a full-day workshop that occurred last Friday in the Adanti Student Center Theatre called “Women in Bioinformatics.” 

According to Professor Dr. Sahar Al Sessi, the workshop was made to support women faculty working in the bioinformatics discipline and encourage more women faculty and students to engage in it, as well as create inter-disciplinary research collaboration opportunities for SCSU faculty and provide career mentoring to support junior faculty members and students. 

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field of science that intersects biology with computer science, data science, and statistics, where computer technology is used to collect, store, and analyze biological data and information, such as DNA and amino acid sequences. 

In the workshop, an all-women group of speakers presented their research in bioinformatics, which included assistant professor Dr. Ellie Duan from Cornell University, associate professors Dr. Sheida Nabavi and Dr. Jill Wegrzyn from UConn, and associate professors Dr. Duygu Ucar and Dr. Sheng Li from The Jackson Laboratory or JAX, an independent and international non-profit biomedical institution. 

Their research ranges from epigenomic data mining, computational genomics, single cell sequencing analysis, cancer genomics, medical image processing, and making bioinformatic solutions to conserve biodiversity in Earth’s forests through tree genome sequencing. 

In Jill Wegrzyn’s presentation, she introduced the audience to CartograPlant, a web application that is used to integrate genotype, phenotype and environmental data for georeferenced tree populations. 

In the workshop’s panel session, speakers joined industry specialists Erika Smith, CEO of ReNextBio, Inc., and Usha Pillai, President of Aria Management Consulting LLC, to discuss careers in bioinformatics and the diversity in the field. 

Regarding the skills and qualities needed for success in bioinformatics, Dr. Sheng Li finds that communication skills are critical for both instructors and students. 

“The ability to communicate with people of different expertise and research backgrounds. That will make a huge difference in terms of leveraging the resources across the board,” Li said.  

Near the end of the workshop, Alexa Wnorowski, a Genomic Education Fellow at JAX, gave an overview of JAX’s “Teaching the Genome Generation” program, which is designed to make genetics and genomics accessible to high school students and teachers by linking its content to personalized medicine and health, ethical decision making, and everyday life. 

“And we also want to lower the barriers for teachers to bring new content to classrooms through detailed lessons and activities, teacher resources, and personalized support, including laboratory kits that we send to teachers throughout New England,” Wnorowski said. 

The audience was then led through a sample lesson from a new curriculum JAX has been developing that uses bioinformatics and genomics to teach math and data literacy, where students use bioinformatics tools to identify the potential impact of a DNA variant on protein structure and function.   

Since the program’s launch in 2015, 279 teachers have been trained, more than 180 schools have implemented it into their biology courses, and over 21,500 students have been introduced to modern genetics and geonomics. 

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