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Illinois IGB

Collaboration provides research-based training of under-represented minorities

February 24, 2020
By: Alisa King

As part of a campus-wide initiative to increase diversity, a collaboration with Fisk University was recently approved for an additional five years of continued financial support from the Office of Executive Associate Chancellor for Administration and University Relations and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCRI). Founder Professor of Physics Jun Song (ACPP) will oversee hands-on bioinformatics, data analysis, and biophysics training for under-represented minority undergraduate students from Fisk University, a minority-serving institution (MSI) in Nashville, Tennessee.

The five-year contribution will be matched through cost-share by the IGB and the Department of Physics, which will provide administrative and technological support to hosting students and also manage faculty-faculty collaborations between Fisk University and the University of Illinois. The Grainger College of Engineering will also contribute funds, and its new “Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access” (IDEA Institute) will help establish research collaborations between Illinois and Fisk faculty members. In addition, the Carver Biotechnology Center’s High-Performance Biological Computing group (HPCBio) will provide personalized training resources and consulting. 

Skye Faucher and Jaia Holleman
Fisk University students Skye Faucher (left) and Jaia Holleman return to campus as part of the KnowEnG collaboration with Mayo Clinic.

Formed in 2014, the Fisk collaboration emerged as Illinois was granted one of the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) grants from the National Institutes of Health, which aimed to enhance and accelerate analysis of complex data or “big data” related to biomedical sciences. In that same year, an R25 program/partnership between the Knowledge Engine for Genomics (KnowEnG) Center, which included Mayo Clinic, and Fisk University was forged.

“This grant allowed for educational resource exchange and on-site training of MSI students on campus at one of the BD2K centers,” explained Song. “Our center worked with Fisk faculty and students for the past six years, and the collaboration consisted of three components.”

The components he is referring to encompasses two consecutive summer training programs, where students become acclimated to the campus and research environment in the first year by externing with HPCBio before choosing a faculty member to conduct research with at either the University of Illinois’ SROP (Summer Research Opportunities Program) or Mayo Clinic’s SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) in their second year.

“We provided hands-on training for utilizing a high-performance computing cluster and performing statistical analyses of genomic data,” said Song. “In the end, they got to analyze real sequencing data that were produced by Illinois faculty. Jessica Holmes, the Research and Instructional Specialist in Life Sciences, and other HPCBio staff members coordinated and carried out these activities.”

Additionally, during the first summer, students are surrounded by a large cohort of like-minded peers by boarding in the same housing and participating in the same activities as the SROP students.

“Students presented their findings to the IGB faculty, including myself and others involved in the training process, and we broadcasted the presentations live to Fisk University, where Fisk faculty members could comment and ask questions at the end of the presentations,” said Song.

In partnership with Mayo Clinic, a computational biology summer course is also offered to Fisk University faculty members and students, organized by Professor Saurabh Sinha in the Department of Computer Science (CABBI/BSD/GNDP/GSP) who co-directed the BD2K center with Professor Jiawei Han (GNDP) and taught by IGB and HPCBio faculty and staff. In addition, a bioinformatics seminar, taught by Professor Sandra Rodriguez-Zas (GNDP) in the Department of Animal Sciences, is broadcasted from the IGB to Fisk University in the spring, which has been ongoing for four years. Fisk University students are also provided with interactive learning tools such as educational games that reinforce bioinformatics concepts learned during lectures.

Since 2016, eight students have participated in the Fisk program, including one student who conducted research at Mayo Clinic, and two students who conducted research at Illinois’ SROP. The majority of those students are now pursuing a degree in higher education or applying to medical schools.

Last summer, two Fisk University students, Jaia Holleman and Skye Faucher, spent five weeks learning programming languages, executing a bioinformatics pipeline, gaining professional development skills, and touring facilities and labs within the IGB.

Both Holleman and Faucher are biochemistry and molecular biology majors, having participated in the program because of their shared interest in biological research and bioinformatics.

“When I received the application for the BD2K program, what sparked my interest the most was that the program combined both biology/research and computer science,” said Holleman. “It was so great being able to meet new people, broaden my horizons, and explore a field that I didn’t know I would have necessarily been interested in.”

“I became interested in the BD2K program after completing a small research project on the applications of bioinformatics for my bioinformatics class and my mentor, Dr. Brian Nelms, advised me to apply,” said Faucher. “I enjoyed being surrounded by a group of aspiring young scientists, much like myself, and experiencing the true interdisciplinary nature of science through discussions about our educational and career goals.”

Fisk University students who successfully complete the full two stages of training in the biophysics track will be automatically eligible to enroll in the physics PhD program at Illinois.

“As a campus-wide initiative, we wanted to establish this kind of bridge program between MSI and Illinois,” said Song. “The Department of Physics will be the first example of this bridge program, and there is great interest on campus to extend this bridge program to the entire College of Engineering as well as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.”

Song views the collaboration with Fisk University as a springboard for future partnerships with other MSI, with the goal of increasing overall diversity on campus.

“The IGB and the Physics department are leading this effort to increase diversity on campus, and it is based on the solid foundation that was established through the BD2K center here,” said Song. “The IGB, HPCBio, SROP, the Department of Physics, and the Center for the Physics of Living Cells are the core components of the future direction that we will take. I think this initiative is a major accomplishment that would not have been possible without the dedicated effort of many people involved and the support from the Chancellor’s Office.”


February 24, 2020
By: Alisa King
Photos By: Skye Faucher and Jaia Holleman