Denison students taking Jeff Thompson’s Genomics class in 2008 and in 2011 had a special opportunity to work on a national research project that is being published in the May issue of “G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics.” Students engaged in original scholarship, and they were listed as authors on a peer-reviewed scientific paper on the evolution of an unusual chromosome in fruit flies. The 23 Denison scholars joined students from 62 higher education institutions across the U.S. Research from all the institutions was coordinated by the Genomics Education Partnership (GEP).
“The study of genomes, the molecular blueprints that define each species, is a rapidly growing branch of biology that is providing fascinating insights into the nature of life,” said Jeff Thompson, associate professor of biology, and chair of the department. “But such investigations are difficult to pursue at small undergraduate institutions because of the need for enormous amounts of funding and high-tech equipment to undertake them. Through the innovative design of the Genomics Education Partnership, my students and I have been in on the ground floor of this intriguing study.” He added, “this project has provided an extraordinary experience for my students, some of whom have expressed how their career plans were shaped by their participation in this investigation.”
“By organizing the efforts of ‘massively parallel’ undergrads, we can solve problems that would defeat other methods,” says GEP program director Sarah Elgin of Washington University in St. Louis. “At the same time, students learn how to handle the messiness of real data, to evaluate different kinds of evidence and to justify their conclusions.”
The GEP is a collaboration between faculty at a growing number of institutions and the Department of Biology and The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. The GEP’s goals are to introduce bioinformatics into the undergraduate curriculum and to integrate research experience into the academic year. With this classroom-based approach, many more students can access educational opportunities normally restricted to those who secure one of the small number of summer research spots available to undergraduates.
The GEP students not only advanced science with their work, but they also learned about genetics and genomics in a hands-on way. This translated to greater educational benefits for the students.
“We think a lot of the benefit comes from asking students to weigh the evidence; sometimes it’s contradictory, sometimes one clue is more reliable than another, sometimes the students need to dig a bit deeper,” says Elgin. “Basically we’re teaching them to look carefully at data and be suspicious, be skeptical.”