Several attendees sit at tables arranged in a circle, watching a presentation being made on a projection screen on one side of the room.

High School Students Begin Bioinformatics Summer Research Experience

Students will work with faculty on interdisciplinary research

June 30, 2017
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How does a virus spread on a cruise ship? Why are bee populations collapsing? Can we build better apps to communicate health information on mobile phones? These are just some of the questions 17 local high school students will help address this summer, working with WPI faculty on research at the intersection of biology, mathematics, and computer science.

The five-week summer research experience created by faculty in the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BCB) Program at WPI began June 26.  

Liz Ryder addresses program participants.

“The job market in this field is great, but it’s not that well known. So, we want to expose students to the field early on, to see if it’s right for them,” says Carolina Ruiz, associate professor of computer science, who is director of the BCB Summer Research Experience (BCB-SRE). She was assisted in developing the program by Elizabeth Ryder, associate professor of biology and biotechnology and director of WPI’s BCB Program.

Open to rising juniors and seniors, the program is free to accepted students. The application process required submission of two letters of recommendation, including one from a math or computer science teacher and another from a science teacher. Students also had to submit their current high school transcript and a “statement of purpose” stating why they want to attend.

“We had more than 50 applications, from very qualified students. It was an impressive group,” Ruiz says. “It was split about half and half, with students coming to this out of interest in mathematics or biology. And that’s the whole idea, to get students exposed to the interdisciplinary nature of applying math and computer science skills to biological problems.”

Participating this year are six Worcester students who attend Bancroft School, Doherty Memorial High School, Mass. Academy of Math and Science at WPI, North High School, and Worcester Technical High School; four students from Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough; three from Westborough High School; and individuals from Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, Shrewsbury High School, St. John's High School, and Westford Academy.

Back row (L to R): Lane Harrison, Dmitry Korkin, post doctoral
researcher Carla Martini, and Liz Ryder. Front row (L to
R): Carolina Ruiz and Brigitte Servatius.

“We purposely focused on local high schools, reaching out to students in our community who otherwise may not have the opportunity to participate in a program like this,” Ryder says. “If students get excited about this field, and have the ability, then it can literally be life changing, giving them direction.”

The program runs Monday through Friday, for five weeks, with students expected to work 30 to 40 hours a week. At the end of the program, students must present a poster showing the results of their work.  “It’s a big commitment from the students, and from the faculty as well,” Ruiz says.

In addition to Ruiz and Ryder, BCB faculty participating in the program this year include Dmitry Korkin and Lane Harrison (Computer Science), Robert Gegear and Scarlet Shell (Biology & Biotechnology), and Brigitte Servatius (Mathematical Sciences). Students will work in teams, assigned to each research group based on student preferences, and take on specific projects that support the faculty’s research programs.

“The truth is, it would be too much trouble for us just to make up projects for them to do,” Ryder says. “Plus, we want them to have an authentic research experience. So, this is the real thing.”

This is the second year of the program, which Ruiz and Ryder developed as a “pilot” to gauge interest and to refine over time based on student and faculty feedback. Ultimately, they hope the program will attract external funding support and serve as a model for other universities.

- By Michael Cohen