Genomic Data Science program brings students to research

Students learn a lot in the classroom, but there is no substitute for real-world experiences. This is especially true for biomedical and genomic research that aims to solve big problems, where the research process is rarely straightforward.  

The UW-Madison Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) in Genomic Data Science engages talented young students with real-world experiences in data and genome science, sparking their interest in pursuing scientific research as a career option. This 10-week program brings students from across the country for a deep dive into research focused on genome-enabled science that uses an individual’s DNA blueprint to understand their biology.  

“I have always been told that science is not linear, but it’s another thing to actually face the nonlinearity yourself,” says Gracia Sandok, a former UW-Madison undergraduate and graduate of the SROP program.  

The Genomic Data Science SROP pairs undergraduate students with faculty mentors and research labs on projects that apply data science methods to problems in genomic science. Past projects have ranged from developing new methods to study cancer biopsy “spatial transcriptome” profiles to computer science algorithms that can predict signaling pathways and networks from genome sequence data.    

The program, hosted by the UW-Madison Center for Genomic Science Innovation, is an opportunity for students to have first-hand experience with the research process and learn new skills, such as programming, machine learning, and data science analysis while applying concepts they learned in class to solve modern-day problems in genomic research.  

Sarah Bennet with her research poster during the 2023 SROP poster session

“This program made me more confident in my abilities to learn skills through application. I learned so much in such a short amount of time, more than I think I could learn in the same amount of time in school,” shares Sarah Bennet, who participated in the program in 2023. Bennet, now a junior at the University of Texas, worked with mentor Professor Mark Craven to develop a machine-learning model predicting changes in cell morphology from gene expression data. 

Working with researchers is an opportunity to not only learn skills and concepts but also to observe how researchers navigate the scientific process. This allows the students to visualize themselves in their position while experiencing the process for themselves, which is particularly important for students from historically underrepresented groups and first-generation college students. 

“My mentor [Professor Colin Dewey] and I faced an issue of a certain program taking too long, so we needed to figure out a way around that,” says Sandok. “Never before have I felt like I was part of deciding the next step instead of just being told what to do.”  

In addition to the mentored research, students also participate in a broad range of career development activities. These include programming classes, practice public speaking with their research teams, and small-group discussions with diverse scientists to hear about their research paths and perspectives. Students also learn about graduate school opportunities as well as other careers in biotechnology and genomics. In the process, students form strong bonds and participate in many social activities that showcase the beauty of Madison in the summer.    

Jaren Bresnick presenting his research on predicting the impact of gene perturbations on cell morphology using Gene Ontology data during the 2023 SROP poster session

Together, these experiences build a strong community that empowers students for their future trajectories.  

“One of the highlights for me was delving into the world of collaborative research projects,” remembers Jaren Bresnick, currently a junior at the University of Virginia, who participated in the program in 2023. “Engaging in these discussions fueled my enthusiasm for collaborative exploration.” 

Students who participated in the program often express how it cemented their desire to further pursue research in graduate school. The program is also a chance for students to meet and work with prominent researchers, which can expand the scope of academic and professional opportunities available to them.  

Philanthropy is an important part of the program’s success. You can help support summer students in the program during this year’s Day of the Badger or through the CGSI website. Donor contributions provide students with food and student housing near campus, a student stipend of $6786, and travel costs to and from Madison, WI.