Genome Solver: Discovering the Human Microbiome

October 25, 2012—Georgetown’s Department of Biology and the Center for New Designs in Leadership and Scholarship (CNDLS) are leading an initiative to bring more research-based learning into the classroom.

Assistant Biology Professor Anne Rosenwald has partnered with CNDLS, Simmons College, and the J. Craig Venter Institute to create Genome Solver, a website that helps faculty and students investigate the Human Microbiome Project. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, Genome Solver includes the interactive website and summer workshops for professors.

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) of the National Institutes of Health hopes to identify and study the microbes that populate the human body. Every person has 10 times more microorganisms, or microbes, than human cells. According to Rosenwald, HMP aims to understand all of the organisms associated with the human system. “In some ways, there are a lot of different ecological niches in your body. All those niches have their own unique microbes,” Rosenwald explained.

These microbes—which are found everywhere from inside your nose and on your elbow to in your digestive tract—can have both harmful and beneficial effects. Scientists are looking to better understand these organisms and their functions within the body, especially studying how the microbial populations change when a person becomes ill.

Data about these microbes were largely unavailable until recent technological improvements in computers and DNA sequencing. J. Craig Venter Institute can easily produce a mass of data for the Human Mircobiome Project, but there are few scientists trained to analyze it. “We have really good computers now, [and] we have a faster way to sequence DNA. [But] nobody has really gone in and dug through with a human eye,” Rosenwald said.

As the need for these skills has grown, Rosenwald and CNDLS are exploring how to train more faculty and students. Each summer Rosenwald leads workshops for non-Georgetown faculty who want to use Genome Solver and teach this kind of analysis in their own classes. The project also aims to teach students practical skills while using real data. “We’re very interested in that kind of learning, research-based learning, but we’re also interested in how the digital can aid and abet that,” said Janet Russell, CNDLS’s director of science programs and instructional technology.

Genome Solver is more interactive than a standard learning management system like Blackboard. It allows students and faculty from any institution to create groups about shared interests. Genomics faculty at different universities can share teaching and curriculum advice, while students and professors can talk about topics missed in class. “[Students] spend so much time online. They don’t see [a website] as a barrier but as an opportunity,” Rosenwald said.

Dr. Gaurav Arora is currently teaching a course on bioinformatics, which teaches students necessary analytical skills for certain scientific research. Genome Solver allows him to teach to a range of students. Those students who are too nervous to speak in class can participate easily through the website. He can also save class time by using the website to cover specific topics. The most exciting part for students is, however, the opportunity to do real scientific research in class. “Students like this model where they not only learn skills, but they actually get to work with real data,” Arora said. According to Arora and Rosenwald, seeing realistic scientific work becomes a significant motivator for students.

While many Georgetown students have the opportunity to work in laboratories, Genome Solver allows for research opportunities in the undergraduate classroom. “There’s a movement out there called CURE, classroom undergraduate research experience,” Rosenwald explained. By focusing on the classroom environment, Rosenwald and her team hope to bring research-based learning to more Georgetown science students and also to students at other universities. “[Genome Solver] gives students at other schools that don’t have a lot of resources a way to do real research. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection,” she continued.

Through Genome Solver, Rosenwald, Arora, and CNDLS are exploring how to combine online learning and the traditional classroom experience, but they also hope to create an academic community with shared interests in cutting-edge genomic research. “It’s not just for students in our classes. It’s for students in other classes; it’s for other faculty members,” Rosenwald said. “We’re trying to generate a community.”

—Elizabeth Wilson