The summer break might seem like the perfect time to hit the beach, but for Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences student Lauren Taylor those long hot months were put to use at the Comparative Genomics Centre. Lauren describes what it is like to be at the cutting edge of research and how she discovered her dream career during the summer studentship.
The Comparative Genomics Centre (CGC) is a research centre at JCU that aims to study human disease, using genetic models, fruit flies and mice, from an evolutionary perspective. During the summer holidays, the CGC offers a summer studentship that allows undergraduate students to experience all the ins and outs of working in a real and functioning laboratory. Basically, this is the perfect opportunity for an undergraduate student to gain some insight into the industry. Once shortlisted for this opportunity, students are able to choose from a list of projects that they wish to be involved in. With a particular interest in medical genomics, I requested to be involved in the project associated with multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that targets the central nervous system of young adults, particularly women. At this time, there is no cure or preventative therapies for multiple sclerosis, and the mechanisms of progression are still unclear. For this reason, I felt that working on this project could make a real difference.
Not knowing what to expect, I arrived on day one with a keen attitude and a willingness to begin learning in the laboratory. I was welcomed with an introduction to the lab, its inhabitants and the project I was to be contributing to. However, instead of contributing to the study with a lab experience, I was introduced to the new and exciting world of bioinformatics. This was where things started to become rather challenging. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that combines computer science and statistics to analyse biological data. In the past few years, there has been a growing demand for bioinformaticians to coincide with an ever-increasing amount of large biological sequence data. I was tasked with analysing RNA sequence data to find a group of genes associated with the disease — using computer coding tools I had no previous experience with.
To begin, I spoke with a JCU bioinformatician who directed me to online workshops to begin learning computer coding. I spent the first week learning background about multiple sclerosis, the basics of UNIX commands and RStudio by completing online tutorials and reading papers. I then received hundreds of data files to begin analysing. That is where it got hard. Computer coding can be very tricky. One missed period, one misplaced letter and it all fails. Try, try again. Throughout the remaining six weeks I worked my way through the remaining analysis and although I was unable to finish it, I received enormous satisfaction from what I did accomplish.
In the end, I learnt valuable new skills and I am now pursuing a career in bioinformatics, to combine my love of molecular biology with my new-found love of computer coding. This studentship opened up new doors and possibilities for future career opportunities that I otherwise would not have discovered.
The Comparative Genomics Centre conducts research that enhances our understanding of the processes involved in cancer, birth defects, immune compromised states and autoimmune disease. The summer studentship at CGC provides talented and highly motivated students with opportunities to receive instruction in the latest genetic and immunological techniques.