HundsonAlpha plans to grow its new program, Characterizing Our DNA Exceptions (CODE), by engaging small groups of college students with authentic genomic research. The students will computationally analyze DNA variants – a practice known as bioinformatics – from real-world, anonymous clinical samples.
Current sequencing technologies make it possible to obtain the entire genetic code of an individual in a matter of days. Often, the process detects DNA variants, or genetic changes, that are not well understood because they have not been studied. These changes are known as variants of uncertain significance, or a VUS.
“A VUS undergoes extensive analysis and testing to determine whether it has a role in the development of a trait or disease, a process that is very time-consuming,” said Michele Morris, Workforce Development lead at HudsonAlpha. “Because of this, VUS interpretation has historically been conducted in larger universities. Through CODE, we want to lower those access barriers.”
In doing so, HudsonAlpha is collaborating with five Alabama colleges and universities across a broader scope of academia. Schools range from nonprofit, to large community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and liberal arts:
- Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine
- Alabama State University
- Birmingham-Southern College
- Lawson State Community College
- Wallace State Community College
Each school will select a faculty member to serve as program adviser who will then select five to 10 students to participate in CODE. HudsonAlpha researchers and educators are hosting a two-day workshop for advisers May 14-15.
“It has always been the mission of the Alabama Power Foundation to support advances in our state. As technology continues to evolve and innovation is more vital than ever, it is important that we continue to expose Alabama’s students to cutting-edge initiatives to ensure their success,” said Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation.
Since its creation in 1989 with funds donated by shareholders, the foundation has supported Alabama communities, educational institutions and nonprofits with nonratepayer dollars through more than 20,000 grant and scholarship awards. “Programs like this one can be real game changers for these students, and we are proud to provide support,” Calhoun said.
Pilot schools will participate in CODE for the 2018-2019 academic year. Students will present their work at a pilot group symposium in March 2019. Following the initial experience, pilot schools will be eligible to continue participation for a second year. This fall, HudsonAlpha will begin recruiting 25 more schools.
“Enormous amounts of genomic data are being generated on a daily basis, so CODE participants will have access to that data and work to characterize newly identified DNA variants,” said Neil Lamb, Ph.D., vice president for Educational Outreach at HudsonAlpha. “We hope this experience will inspire more Alabama students to pursue a career in the STEM fields such as genomics and bioinformatics.”