Dr. Allan Brown, assistant professor with N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus, is leading the effort to sequence the blueberry genome. Seven Davidson College undergraduates, in a course led by biology professor Dr. A. Malcolm Campbell, have been given a sneak peek at a portion of the berry’s DNA. These juniors and seniors aren’t just marveling at the string of letters that make up the DNA assembly they are working with; they have identified metabolic pathways and hypothesized gene function. On Tuesday, April 12, 2011, the students will present their findings to their peers, Campbell and Brown.
In early 2010, Brown contacted Campbell about a possible collaboration. Campbell oversees the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching, an international network of undergraduate faculty who facilitate undergraduate genomics research in the classroom. “This is an innovative approach that allows students to design research projects to analyze real-world data using cutting-edge tools to make new discoveries. They are not simply performing canned experiments with a known outcome,” says Brown.
Campbell sees further advantages to this sort of partnership between teaching and research. As educational institutions face unprecedented budget cuts, he challenges institutions to find innovative ways to leverage available funds. “Genomics research, in particular, relies on computers and Internet access, tools that are already available in any educational environment,” says Campbell. “Working with a funded researcher puts students on the cutting edge of science, challenging them to generate meaningful results at no additional cost.”
Davidson College is 16 miles from the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Campbell acknowledges that this type of project doesn’t require face-to-face collaboration, but he does believe that students and the scientists benefit from being able to work face-to-face. He says, “Science is a social endeavor, and it’s the synergy that happens when scientists get together in the same space that leads to real breakthroughs.”
Brown, along with colleagues from the David H. Murdock Research Institute and UNC Charlotte, expects the blueberry genome to be published later this year. In addition to sequencing the genome, Brown’s lab has worked extensively to annotate the gene map, or identify a gene’s functionality, focusing on properties that promote human health. The Davidson College students chose projects that complemented, rather than duplicated, Brown’s research. Campbell says, “The students have produced novel information that can contribute to the body of knowledge that is developing for blueberry and plant genomics.”
Writer: Megan Bame