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Young Researchers Work Keyboard-to-Keyboard in an RNA Institute Summer 

A Zoom session from the RNA Institute’s Undergraduate Summer Fellowship shows interaction among 23 of the student participants along with Institute Director Andy Berglund, bottom row, second from the left. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 11, 2020) — This year the RNA Institute’s Undergraduate Summer Fellowship looks a little different.

In 2019, the program’s inaugural year, students from the Capital Region and beyond flocked to the institute’s advanced labs to conduct hands-on research side by side with some of the region’s top researchers. A similar format was planned for this summer, but that was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Rather than cancel the 10-week program, however, the Institute’s staff and faculty, led by Andy Berglund, professor of Biological Sciences and institute director, embraced the new normal and went completely virtual. In addition, with on-site, hands-on labs out of the question. they focused the student-researchers’ upon the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics.

Did the switch from a hands-on exploration of a wide range of topics dampen enthusiasm for the program, which concludes this Friday? Not at all. Some 30 students — representing California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and New York — worked keyboard-to-keyboard with institute researchers in bioinformatics, a growing component of modern research in which large digital biological research data (entire genome sequences) are analyzed computationally.

“Researchers are increasingly expected to have the bioinformatics skills necessary to effectively process, manage and utilize complex sets of data,” said Ryan Meng, the institute’s bioinformatics support specialist who is the program’s lead instructor. He described how it is not uncommon for researchers to analyze all the genes expressed by a cell while it is being treated with a drug to pull out the one or two genes that make the drug effective or cause side effects.

“This type of bioinformatics analysis is ideally suited for the current social distancing crisis, as all the work is done remotely over the internet with massive supercomputers processing the data,” Meng said. In this way, he noted, the program provided students with the skillset and tools that are a vital component for many advanced degrees and careers in any STEM field.

After learning the basics of remote data processing, the undergraduate fellows put this knowledge toward analyzing data from an ongoing RNA Institute – Upstate Medical University collaboration into how the COVID-19 virus is transmitted and if the virus in Upstate New York is similar to viruses elsewhere in the state and around the world.

After announcing that the program, open to undergrads enrolled for Fall 2020, would be going virtual, the institute began hearing from students across the country, eager to participate. “Several of these students sought us out when other programs canceled their summer research programs.” said Berglund.

Pulling together limited resources and critical support from philanthropic donors, the fellowship was able to expand to include several more of these students. The program also pulled in UAlbany graduate students who had become unable to work at lab benches due to the virus’s restrictions.

“It is amazing to see the interest and comradery in the program,” said Berglund, “We have everyone from high school students to graduate students and even senior researchers with decades of experience learning together.”

Not only, by end of this week, will the institute have trained a cadre of students in computational methods that will ease their rapid transition to remote work in future careers in graduate school and biotech. The program’s instructors also have gained a similar number of allies in the fight against COVID-19 while developing a teaching model that can react to even the harshest restrictions.

“I am very excited to work on this COVID-19 research,” said Katie O’Neill-Knasick, a biochemistry student entering her second year at Rochester Institute of Technology. “My summer likely would have looked very different had the pandemic not happened, but without it, I likely wouldn’t have been able to get my EMT while doing this exciting research — all while spending more time with my family and dog.

“Maybe not the summer I expected, but certainly memorable and full of learning and exploration”

 

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