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Summer program gives Virginia Tech students firsthand experience sequencing DNA

Summer program gives Virginia Tech students firsthand experience sequencing DNA

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BLACKSBURG — Abigail Workmeister is watching how cancer cells sleep.

In a laboratory at Steger Hall on Virginia Tech’s campus, Workmeister is measuring how circadian cycles affect the growth and division of melanoma cells. Understanding that growth and division can be the key to understanding how to fight cancer — as Workmeister tests whether the time of day someone receives chemotherapy or other treatment might influence the effectiveness of drugs.

It’s complex but important work for the senior biochemistry major taking part in a summer program at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech through the Genomics Sequencing Center. Eight students are taking part in the summer program mapping out genes to improve their scientific understanding — and working alongside faculty to fight cancer in the process. It’s called the information biology program and it’s open to Tech honors students over 12 weeks in the summer.

The students are mapping genomes and then sorting through the almost unfathomable amount of data to make big conclusions. It’s a blend of biology and computer science.

“Even if this doesn’t seem like something you [a student] would be interested in, if you have a scientific mind this furthers your understanding of science,” Workmeister said.

The summer program is in its second year, said Stan Hefta, a research professor and director of the Genomics Sequencing Center.

The sequencing center features about $5 million worth of equipment used for sequencing DNA. Hefta said the group takes requests from researchers all over Tech’s campus and some from private industry. They’ve sequenced genomes from all kinds of things ranging from roses to tomatoes to dogs to humans.

“We get everything in here,” he said.

Much of the DNA that needs to be sequenced by researchers at Tech goes through the lab, Hefta said. Because it’s more cost-effective than ever and can tell researchers so much information, the use of the lab is only likely to continue to grow.

“Sequencing is becoming a universal detector for all things DNA,” he said.

The art of sequencing genomes has greatly evolved over the past two decades, Hefta said. Sequencing the first as part of the famous Human Genome Project took 15 years. Now, scientists could sequence a person’s genome in about a week, he said.

And it’s not common for undergraduate students to be exposed to this type of work. That’s the reason Tech researchers opened the lab up as part of the summer program to students such as Workmeister.

Carla Finkielstein, a biological sciences professor, is working closely with Workmeister. Her research focuses on studying cancer treatment. She’s especially focused on how sleep and time of day affects the best treatment of cancer cells.

One of her goals from this research and others is to put together the scientific backing to shape a better timing protocol for cancer treatment, she said.

Researchers have discovered that timing of taking cancer treatment drugs affects their effectiveness and the potency of side effects. However, the medical community hasn’t yet embraced that science. The experiments that the undergraduates are running are more of a proof of concept, Finkielstein said.

The opportunity to work with undergraduate students over the summer on sequencing genomes is a major one for all parties involved, she said.

The students are getting valuable lab and data analysis experience and professors like Finkielstein can run more experiments in the quest to study cancer treatments.

“It’s really sweet,” Finkielstein said.

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