Bioinformatics learning takes flight during bird research
From bioinformatics and genomic data analysis to Python software, students gain skills that provide a competitive advantage as they pursue careers in science.
If there is one professional lesson that biochemistry major Alex VanHelene ’23 and biology major Matthew Healy ’23 have learned from their Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) it is the importance of adaptability.
“Nothing goes as expected the first time,” said Healy, whose SURE participation was supported by a NSF S-STEM grant. “Research is all about troubleshooting.”
Case in point: The two students — both of whom came to Stonehill through the Massasoit Community College Transfer Initiative — had to shift the focus of their work before it even began. Originally, they planned to use bioinformatics techniques combining programming and biology to analyze data from cherry-faced meadowhawk and ruby meadowhawk dragonfly specimens collected on Cape Cod. The team hoped to determine whether the creatures, between which scientists are sometimes unable to distinguish, form hybrids with each other or are two distinct species.
A data glitch upended those plans. Instead of analyzing dragonflies last summer, the trio used data on Malagasy birds that their faculty partner – Associate Professor of Biology Nicholas Block – had previously collected with collaborators in relation to his dissertation.
“Even though we shifted, the students learned the same bioinformatics techniques they would have learned working with the dragonfly data,” said Block. “We’re asking very similar questions about how species hybridize. The hope is that they can apply what they’ve learned to the dragonfly data in the future, even after SURE ends.”
Data Experience Valuable for Graduate School Applicants
Healy noted that the skills he honed through the summer research experience will also transfer to opportunities outside Stonehill.
“I plan to pursue graduate school after college,” the Brockton resident said. “I’m really interested in bioinformatics and analyzing genomic data. Everything I’m learning right now is going to help me in the future as I pursue those interests in a professional capacity.”
Healy said SURE allowed him to flex muscles related to Python, a computer programming language he will probably continue using after he graduates.
“Even if Python goes away, a new coding language will take its place, and you can guarantee it’s going to be very similar,” he said. “Coding languages are such that once you learn one, you can learn another twice as fast because they’re so alike.”
A Chance to Grow into Role of Science
As for soft skills that Block’s students honed through SURE, personal accountability tops VanHelene’s list.
“The thing I like about SURE is the amount of freedom and responsibility students are given,” he said. “It’s really up to us to stay motivated, to show up and get the work done. I appreciate that. The program functions as a steppingstone to what I expect the real world will be like.”
As VanHelene, native to Sharon, Massachusetts, considers his next steps after Stonehill, he is hoping that he can pay forward the positive experience he has had with SURE.
“My goal is to make an impact on the program that lasts after I’m gone,” he said. “Matthew and I are planning to make a tutorial that basically spells out each step of the procedures we are working on. It will be a resource for future students in Professor Block’s lab. I’m grateful I have the chance to be a leader in that way.”