RNA Institute Summer Fellowship program steps up to fight COVID-19 and it's impact on education

RNA Institute Summer Program

This year the RNA Institute’s Undergraduate Summer Fellowship looks a little different. Traditionally, 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. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted this educational opportunity, like so many other aspects of society. Rather than cancel the program, the Institute’s staff and faculty, under the direction of Dr. Andy Berglund, jumped in to embrace the new normal of social distancing by going completely virtual. Now thirty students from across the country (California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and New York) are taking part in this 10-week summer program by working keyboard to keyboard with RNA Institute researchers.

The summer program was adapted to remotely teach 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. It is not uncommon for researchers to analyze all the genes expressed by a cell, while 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. In this manner, the program provides students with the skillset and tools that are a vital component for many advanced degrees and careers in any STEM field.

Not content to simply teach the students these skills, the Institute program being taught by bioinformatics specialist, Ryan Meng, is fighting back by teaching students to analyze the COVID-19 genome itself. After learning the basics of remote data processing, the undergraduate fellows are putting their new knowledge towards analyzing data from an ongoing COVID-19 RNA Institute – Upstate collaboration. The students and researchers are looking for clues in the virus’s genes that may explain how the virus is transmitted and if the virus in Upstate New York is similar to viruses elsewhere in New York and around the world. Together this student cohort will help push forward our understanding of the virus in Upstate NY.

While fighting back against COVID-19, the program is also fighting back against its effects on the educational system. While the RNA Institute quickly pivoted from an in-person hands-on summer science experience to a remote one, they began hearing from students across the country eager to participate.

Several of these students sought us out when other programs across the country canceled their summer research programs.” – explained Dr. Andy Berglund, Director of the RNA Institute.

Pulling together limited resources and critical support from philanthropic donors, the program was able to expand to include several students whose summer research programs had been canceled. The program also pulled in UAlbany graduate students who have been unable to work at the bench due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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

With virtual programs becoming the “new normal” for educational institutions, this program may represent a win-win for both students and teachers alike. By the end of the summer the institute will have trained 25+ students in computational methods that will enable them to rapidly transition to remote work when they go on to future careers in graduate school and biotech. At the same time, the program’s teachers have gained 25+ allies in their fight against COVID-19 and developed a teaching model that can react to even the harshest restriction.

I am very excited to work on COVID-19 research. 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” – said Katie O’Neill- Knasick, a Biochemistry student entering her second year at Rochester Institute of Technology.

More details about the Summer Program can be viewed HERE.

About the RNA Institute
The RNA Institute at the University At Albany, NY, develops and delivers tools, analytics and early stage discoveries necessary for the progression of RNA-based therapeutics and diagnostics. It brings together leading researchers from higher education and other institutions and industry and offers advanced facilities for RNA research that are critical to new frontiers in human health.

A number of researchers at the RNA Institute are working on projects designed to understand the SARSCoV2 virus, improve current testing approaches and explore potential new therapeutics. An overview of these projects can be viewed on the website.

Dr. Andrew Berglund
Director, The RNA Institute and SUNY Empire Professor of Innovation, Department of Biological
Sciences, University at Albany
[email protected]


Related - Watch the interview with some of our Summer Fellows and the New York State Writers Institute.