The following blog is part of a series written by the students and staff of the Youth Engagement through Science- Genome program (YES!G), sponsored by the Global Genome Initiative. The high school internship program offers teens hands-on experience in genomics research.
This summer I had the privilege of working with the YES! Genome 2015 students to introduce them to some of the cutting-edge analytical tools available for exploring and visualizing genomic data as a way to understand and compare organisms.
The students had the chance to not only generate their own genome data, but were also introduced to computer science principles to provide them with a foundation in bioinformatics.
Bioinformatics is a field where biological concepts are explored through computer science. As the research bioinformatician for the Global Genome Initiative, I take genomic information and synthesize biologically relevant ideas from it.
Using these tools is how we can get from files containing millions to billions of nucleotides--the building blocks of DNA--to identifying which genes are responsible for things like fighting infections and interacting with viruses.
To bring the students into this process, we demonstrated how the specialized computers we use generate, store, analyze, and combine biological and genetic information. From there, we explained how to interpret the data in order to study evolutionary relationships and gene function.
We then took them through a variety of tasks, from assembling genomes to get a more complete picture of an organism’s genetic makeup, to using genome-level information to understand how organisms are related and how genes work.
This is not easy material to process; these high school students are being exposed to advanced undergraduate/graduate level concepts. Yet, the YES!G scholars were able to walk away with the knowledge of what is takes to not only generate genomic data, but to take it a step further by understanding how all that information is organized and what the genes do.
It’s my hope that the training they received this summer will inspire them to explore careers in science down the line. To me, the best part of being a scientist is being able to convey ideas, concepts and insights of biology to the world. The longer I am a scientist, the more the field intrigues me. There are so many different types of science, and so many aspects to study. I would encourage any young scientist to explore them all. Who knows, they might even end up fascinated by an organism or field of science they didn't even known existed!
By Vanessa L. Gonzalez, Research Bioinformatician of the Global Genome Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History.