Science + Technology

UCLA hosts summer program for future biosciences leaders

Outstanding undergraduates include students underrepresented in the sciences

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Tracy Johnson
Sebastian Hernandez/UCLA Broadcast Studio

Professor Tracy Johnson is director of a new HHMI-funded program to reinvigorate undergraduate science education, especially for transfer students.

Twenty-eight outstanding undergraduates from across the country are spending eight weeks at UCLA this summer, conducting research and learning the latest data analysis techniques and skills that are transforming the biosciences.

The exceptional young scholars participating in the Bruins In Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program show promise as future leaders in the biological and biomedical sciences, said Tracy Johnson, program co-leader and a professor who holds the Maria Rowena Ross Chair of Cell Biology. She said the program aims to improve diversity and strengthen graduate programs throughout the University of California system.

The group includes eight students from three Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs — Florida A&M, Fisk University and Morehouse College.

African-Americans are underrepresented in UC and national graduate and professional programs. From 2010 to 2014, the average enrollment of African-Americans in UC doctoral programs was only 2.8 percent. Other underrepresented minorities in the program include two Latinos and nine students of Asian descent. More than half of the participants are women, who are also underrepresented in the sciences.

The biosciences are undergoing a revolution, with scientists unlocking the biological basis of health and disease by tapping the power of big data and computational modeling, said Alexander Hoffmann, director of UCLA’s Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences and a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics.

UCLA video: A revolution in the biosciences
Sebastian Hernandez/UCLA Broadcast Studio
Biology and computer science combine to help solve issues of human health and disease.

“We have access to extraordinary amounts of biological and biomedical data, which requires us to analyze and make sense of it all — data on the biology of health and disease, how the cell functions, how genes can be turned on and turned off under a variety of conditions, and other fundamental questions in biology,” Johnson said.

The program provides an opportunity for the students to learn how to analyze the data and apply skills they have learned to a variety of important biological questions. The students began the program with an intensive, two-week course to learn state-of-the-art techniques in such areas as genetic sequencing, bioinformatics, data analysis and programming. Since then, each student has been working with mentors in a research laboratory at the institute, which is sponsoring the program.

Hoffmann, co-leader of the program with Johnson, said there is a danger of a digital divide emerging in the rapidly growing field of computational biosciences. He said that through the research program, he and his colleagues are working to prevent that.

Many of the students are likely to pursue graduate degrees in the biological or biomedical sciences — quite possibly at UCLA, Johnson said.

“Ultimately, we would love to recruit top students to come to UCLA, and these are definitely top students,” she said.

The students are attending genetic sequencing analysis workshops and weekly science presentations by researchers, meeting with faculty advisers, and participating with institute postdoctoral fellows in skill-building courses on the analysis of genomic data, among other activities. The students were selected based on their academic excellence, abilities in the computational biosciences and promise for future achievement, Hoffmann said, adding that the selection was highly competitive.

The campus program runs through Aug. 12. After it ends, UCLA faculty and researchers will continue to mentor the students throughout the academic year and participate in teleconferences with students and faculty members at each participating institution. Faculty from Florida A&M and Fisk University will also visit UCLA.

Last summer, Hoffmann, Johnson and institute colleagues ran a successful similar summer program (with programmatic support from Ina Thorner, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Pathways program representative at UCLA) for diverse students from Southern California universities. The group plans to host the undergraduate research program the next two summers as well.

Other faculty from the institute who are participating include Eleazar Eskin, associate professor of computer science and co-organizer of the summer program; Hilary Coller, associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology; Matteo Pelligrini, director of the institute’s Collaboratory and a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology; and Jenny Papp, adjunct professor of human genetics.

The program is partly funded by a grant from the UC Office of the President.

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