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Excited about Genomes

February 1, 2005

Demystifying genomics opens field to under-represented minority students and undergrads

By Eva Emerson
February 2005

Genomic science is still new enough that many people don’t have a clear idea of what the interdisciplinary field is all about. But what is clear, according to University Professor Michael Waterman, a computational biologist and director of USC College’s Center for Excellence in Genomic Sciences (CEGS), is just how important the field will become in the coming decades.

That has made training young scientists a core goal of the federally funded CEGS, which runs two programs targeted at attracting more under-represented minority students to the growing field. Through its Summer Institute and a competitive undergraduate research program for USC students, CEGS is helping students get started on the road to successful careers in science, and hopefully convince a few of the excitement of studying genomes.

In the summer of 2004, 11 students from around the nation attended the center’s inaugural eight-week course, an intensive introduction to genomics led by Waterman, holder of the USC Associates Chair in Natural Sciences, and molecular biologist Steven Finkel, assistant professor of biological sciences. The students’ academic backgrounds ranged from applied math and bioinformatics to molecular biology and computer science, a variety that mirrored the breadth of genomics itself and enabled students to help each other in their coursework. Along with classes, students did research with CEGS faculty and even managed a little time for fun, going on outings to Catalina and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

The institute inspired Gilbert West, an African American computer science major from Lehman College in the Bronx, to think about a career in genomics. “I thought scientists mapped the genome from A to Z, but I learned it was more complex, following statistical rules,” says West, who plans to apply to graduate school at USC College. “I didn’t realize how important statistics is to everything in genomics. It’s a lot more interesting than I thought.”

Another summer student, Julieta Aguilar, says she will stick with biology in graduate school but that the course was enlightening. “This was very different from anything I’ve ever done before,” says Aguilar, a 5th-year microbiology major at Cal State University Northridge. “I learned that, even for a biologist, learning some math and computer science can really help your career.”

“What happened at the institute this summer was beyond our expectations,” says Finkel. “I think we actually achieved what we had written in our proposal — to open the eyes and change the attitudes of students about genomics.”