By Leo Barolo
In past years, undergraduate students in the UW-Madison Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) would arrive on campus in June for a summer of immersive research in a lab on campus, along with campus life and other experiences. A goal of the SROP is to provide opportunities to students to prepare them for a path to graduate school.
But this past summer, the SROP was restricted to virtual experiences due to the pandemic. What emerged from restrictions was an exciting new model – collaborative research on the same overarching research question.
The SROP in Biomedical Data Science hosted 6 students from across the U.S. including Puerto Rico. To provide a rich experience, the students each worked on a different computational aspect of the same overarching research program, which is developing new methods to identify disease-causing genetic variants in human patients. The project, known as the “Genomic Variant Interpretation” (GVI) project and funded by a recent Research Forward grant, includes 15 different faculty and a collaboration with Wisconsin-based clinical DNA testing laboratory PreventionGenetics.
Each student worked with a different PI on one aspect of the project. Students and PIs met weekly as a group to share research results, discuss challenges, and brainstorm new ideas. The new collaborative summer research model was a big hit with the students.
Anastasiya Sushkova, currently a junior in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, voiced this support: “I thought it was really engaging to have something in common that we can all talk about, especially since we are remote. I felt like I understood the project on a deeper level, and I appreciated hearing what the other students were working on, and how what I’m doing fits in with everyone else’s work.”
As different students were in charge of different aspects of the project, they learned how to build from each other’s work: while Anastasiya worked on methods to predict the impact of genetic variants in protein-coding genes, other students, such as Margaret Elliott, a senior from University of Notre Dame, incorporated the data into a network analysis, under the supervision of Professor Tony Gitter.
“It was really awesome to see the pieces start coming together as the summer went on, and I enjoyed hearing about the different specific focuses the other students worked on and how they fit into the larger project.” Margaret Elliott
A major goal of the SROP is to create a diverse academic environment by increasing the number of traditionally underrepresented students in UW-Madison graduate programs, and ultimately, the professoriate. As such, selected students typically come from diverse backgrounds, and they have diverse past lab experiences as well.
The project introduced some students to their first academic research experience. One such student was Vincent Do, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Mathematics who worked with Professor Mark Craven. Vincent was always interested in working in the medical field, but his experiences on the project gave him new insight into the life of a scientist:
“The biggest thing I took away was that it was all right for us to be uncertain about things,” says Vincent. “I now understand that communication is key to being a good scientist. For example, I witnessed the professors facilitate discussion by asking questions. These questions would clear up any misconceptions or facilitate even more discussion.” Vincent said he enjoyed his experience with the project and is open to working on more research on similar topics.
Other students already had research experience – but still learned from the opportunity. One of these students was Gracia Sandok, a senior at UW-Madison. Gracia previously worked in David McCulley’s lab, where she did mostly bench work. By participating in SROP, she experienced different aspects of the researcher life:
“Working in this program has helped develop me as a scientist because I was faced with issues or setbacks that I had to overcome. I have always been told that science is not linear but it’s another thing to actually face the nonlinearity yourself. My mentor [Colin Dewey] and I faced an issue of a certain program taking too long so we needed to figure out a way around that, and never before have I felt like I was part of deciding the next step instead of just being told the next step.” Gracia Sandok
Additionally, Gracia shared some insight into how the program highlighted grad school opportunities and affected her career plans going forward. “This program had a lot of talks with different faculty or students that are part of the grad school here at UW. Each talk gave a different aspect of the typical life or a different support system for the students,” shared Gracia. “It was interesting and helped me get excited for grad school!”
The success of the program, and especially the enthusiastic feedback from the students, will likely spur the incorporation of collaborative research models in future undergraduate research opportunities.
The BDS SROP was funded by the Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine (CIBM) training grant, with supporting funds from the Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics and the Center for Genomic Science Innovation.
The GVI research project is being funded by the Research Forward program, successor to the UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative retired earlier this year. The project looks forward to future opportunities to expose talented undergraduates to collaborative research at UW-Madison.