16 March, 2018
Along with around 100 other scientists from the Babraham Institute and companies on the Babraham Research Campus, I had the pleasure of being involved in the Institute’s 24th annual Schools’ Day on Wednesday 7th March. In fact, as a PhD student in 1998, I helped to run my first Schools’ Day project whilst in one of the Institute’s research groups. Things have evolved in the last twenty years, but the passion and enthusiasm of the scientists endures, as does the students’ thirst for knowledge and experience: key qualities for the future of research.
As part of the Babraham Bioinformatics group, our project took ‘A’ level students on a whistle stop tour of bioinformatics and data analysis. Bioinformatics is a field of science that uses computers to understand biological data. This year’s project focussed on using computers to help interpret large DNA sequence datasets. Specifically, we were looking at how we could measure which genes were active in newly fertilised eggs and link this to regulatory signals attached to the cells' DNA. Although not based in a traditional laboratory, students had the opportunity to get hands-on with real biological data. During the session, they learned how an Illumina sequencing machine is able to read the series of letters in a DNA sequence and they assessed the quality of the data it produced. Finally, they explored and analysed both the gene expression data and epigenetic DNA methylation regulatory information to look for a relationship between the two, and all using software developed at the Babraham Institute.
Simon Andrews (Head of Babraham Bioinformatics) and I were impressed by the students’ level of knowledge – both related to the curriculum and beyond – and their enthusiasm to embrace a novel topic, even discussing how this experience might shape their future directions.
One student in our group said:
"My session was related to bioinformatics, which was quite unfamiliar for me but made me very keen to learn more about it. In the project I was introduced to many interesting tools for analysing genomic data from a DNA sequencing machine. For example, ‘FastQC’ is software for getting the DNA sequence with the error probabilities for the data it reads (working out how accurate the machine is). I learned how to interpret the results from the software so that they can be used in the lab.
The other software we used is called ‘Seqmonk’. This shows the results from a technique called ‘mRNA-sequencing’. With Seqmonk we can compare levels of gene expression of different genes as well as the DNA methylation patterns in various chromosomes. I really enjoyed doing this because it helped me to understand the principles of mRNA-sequencing – something I found confusing until now.
Taking part in Schools’ Day gave me a chance to gain perspectives from people working in a range of scientific fields. Meeting real scientists who actually use what I am studying is the best experience that I had” Pannaree (Cambridge College for Sixth-Form Studies)
I can’t wait to help make the 25th annual Schools’ Day even more inspiring for students at the start of their STEM careers.
16 March 2018
By Jo Montgomery