The Genomics Education Partnership: Shared Research

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Title of Abstract: The Genomics Education Partnership: Shared Research

Name of Author: Sarah C R Elgin
Author Company or Institution: Washington University in St Louis
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics, Biotechnology, Evolutionary Biology, Genetics
Course Levels: Independent study / research, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.)
Keywords: bioinformatics comparative genomics eukaryotic genes/genomes research lab course collaborative network

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The Genomics Education Partnership (GEP) was founded in 2006 to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to participate in a large-scale genomics research project. By incorporating genomics research into the undergraduate curriculum, the GEP faculty members can provide a research experience for a larger number of students than can generally be accommodated in a traditional summer research program. Our major research goal has been to examine the evolution of the ‘dot’ chromosome (Muller F element) of Drosophila, an unusual domain that exhibits both heterochromatic and euchromatic properties. (Our first publication is Leung, W. et al. 2010 Genetics 185: 1519-1534, Evolution of a distinct genomic domain in Drosophila: Comparative analysis of the dot chromosome in Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila virilis. Our second publication, in preparation, will have ~500 student and ~50 faculty co-authors.) Future projects will focus on the expansion of the F element in a subgroup of species, and on the search for conserved motifs specific to this element and its genes.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Bioinformatics research typically requires only access to computers and the Internet, and thus has lower costs and fewer lab safety concerns than most life science research. While GEP faculty members teach students a common set of bioinformatics protocols, each student in the class applies their knowledge to a unique region of a genome, taking responsibility for their own project. We find that students can effectively acquire many bioinformatics skills through peer instruction, allowing a team approach to the research. A genomics-based course has the advantage that a central website (maintained by W. Leung and C.D. Shaffer, Washington University in St Louis) can support the efforts of a large number of faculty and their students across the country, providing cost-effective implementation. An anonymous survey of the GEP faculty has shown that this central support is of critical importance in enabling the faculty to introduce this novel, research-centered curriculum to their campuses.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: To assess the undergraduate experience, students are asked to take a pre/post course quiz and survey. The quiz tests student knowledge of eukaryotic genes and genomes. The survey examines science-related attitudes, and includes 20 questions that are identical to the nationally utilized Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences. All research projects (~40 kb segments of the domain of interest) are completed at least twice independently by students at different schools, and the results reconciled. Final results are submitted to GenBank and connected to FlyBase.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Student members of the GEP have improved over 7 megabases of sequence (from the F element, and a euchromatic reference region at the base of the D element) and produced more than 1,000 manually curated gene models, as well as annotating other features of these domains. Last year over 1000 students from 54 colleges and universities participated in GEP-affiliated lab courses. Student results for four Drosophila species are currently being assembled and analyzed to better understand the evolution of this domain (manuscript in preparation). Students show significant gains on the quiz, which tests their understanding of the structure and function of eukaryotic genes and genomes. Their responses on the CURE survey are generally the same or better than responses from students who have spent a summer in a mentored research experience, assessed by the parallel SURE survey (supervised by D. Lopatto, Grinnell College). The pedagogical results confirm and extend our prior findings (Lopatto et al. 2008 Science 322: 684-85, Undergraduate Research: Genomics Education Partnership; Shaffer et al. 2010 CBE-Life Sci Educ 9: 55-69, The Genomics Education Partnership: Successful integration of research into laboratory classes at a diverse group of undergraduate institutions). Positive responses on the quiz and survey show little correlation with characteristics of the home institution (e.g. private vs. public, school size, etc.), but do correlate with the amount of time that the faculty member can schedule for GEP-related work (lecture/discussion plus lab time); more time enables a more beneficial research experience. As GEP member schools are very diverse, these results are consistent with the interpretation that students from all backgrounds, working in a variety of settings, will benefit from participating in a research-based lab course.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: While a centralized project such as that run by the GEP is an excellent way for faculty to begin teaching research-based laboratory courses, ultimately one would like that research to be directly tied to the research interests of the individual faculty member. Better bioinformatics interfaces (for example, an easy route for loading a new genome into a browser such as the UCSC Browser) are needed to reach this goal.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Since its inception, the GEP has grown substantially, and now has over 100 partner schools (see current members at https://gep.wustl.edu). Members join by attending a 3 - 5 day workshop at Washington University. All curriculum is freely available on the GEP website under a Creative Commons license. We find that the collaborative nature of a shared research effort helps to make this an enjoyable and effective way to teach. The results suggest that such national projects are cost-effective, can have a widespread impact on life-science teaching, and should be supported in greater number.

Acknowledgements: I thank all faculty members of the GEP (see https://gep.wustl.edu/community/current_members) and their students; Jeremy Buhler, Elaine Mardis, Chris Shaffer, and Wilson Leung, all of Washington University; and David Lopatto, Grinnell College, for their participation in this project. This work has been supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through grant #52007051 to SCRE and by Washington University in St Louis.