Spratt Co-Authors Article on Student Involvement in Genomics

Dr. Mary Spratt, Cox Distinguished Professor of Science at William Dr. Spratt with studentsWoods University, and her students have been working with the Genomics Education Partnership Project (GEP) since 2007, the second year of the project.


Genomics is a recent scientific discipline that strives to define and characterize the complete genetic makeup of an organism. Its primary approaches are to determine the entire sequence and structure of an organism’s DNA (its genome) and then to determine how that DNA is arranged into genes.


“I found the GEP website when I was looking around for a research project that could involve a lot of our upper division biology majors,” Spratt said.


She contacted the organizer at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and William Woods was accepted into the project. Since then, the number of participating schools has grown by about 15 per year. Now an article that Spratt co-authored, summarizing the early GEP outcomes, both for students and for science, has been accepted for publication.


The article will be published in the online quarterly journal, “Cell Biology Education-Life Science Education,” known as CBE-LSE.


The article is based on her professional research for the Genomics Education Partnership and is titled, “The Genomics Education Partnership: Successful Integration of Research into Laboratory Classes at a Diverse Group of Undergraduate Institutions.”


The GEP gives undergraduate students the opportunity to study genetic codes and genes in living organisms and to make substantive contributions to the published data in genomics. It involves a consortium of 61 colleges and universities throughout the United States, working together with the biology department and the Genome Sequencing Center of Washington University.


“The purpose is to provide primarily undergraduate students with a chance to participate in genomic research,” said Spratt.


“Students ‘claim’ a certain part of a target organism, which has been initially sequenced (the genetic code read) at the famous Genome Center in St. Louis. It is their job to improve that data by carefully examining it, making corrections and even calling for the Genome Center to re-sequence parts of their project.”


Once students have read the genetic sequences they then perform annotation.

“They find the genes in the sequence, compare them to similar genes in other species and see what genes are coded for by these proteins,” said Spratt. 


Students then compile a report, present it to the class for peer review and submit it to the GEP.


“Students get excited about being involved in real research and having the possibility of contributing to new data, rather than doing ‘canned’ labs where the outcome is already known,” said Spratt.


“Students have to hone their own critical thinking and organization skills in order to organize and prepare written and oral reports as well as provide evidence for their decisions. While the initial learning curve is rather steep in learning to use the tools and data bases, these skills are very marketable later on, and impressive on an undergraduate resume.”


Spratt calls this type of student learning “in silico” –it is scientific laboratory work done primarily on large databases through computers. 


“This type of ‘in silico’ research is new to most faculty, too, and so it is a new skill for them to learn,” said Spratt.


“Advantages of this project,” she explained, “include being able to work with faculty from other parts of the country, to engage students in meaningful research, and to contribute to both scientific and educational research.”