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Biocomplexity Institute gives students a start in research science

September 21, 2016

Bridges to the Baccalaureate student Carlos Aponte works in a laboratory

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Carlos Aponte had his first hands-on laboratory research experience this summer as a participant in Virginia Tech's Bridges to the Baccalaureate program.

When Paula Cano attended a lecture last fall on recent breakthroughs biological research, she had no idea she'd be spending the summer making her own scientific discoveries.  

Now she's one of 10 promising students who've traveled hundreds of miles to get their first experience working in a major research lab at Virginia Tech. She and her peers have come to take part in the university’s Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, an NIH-funded initiative designed to help community college students make the transition to a four-year degree program in the biomedical sciences.

Getting here was half the battle

Cano’s path to Virginia Tech hasn’t been a straight line: after earning her first associate’s degree in culinary arts, she spent years working as a commercial chef, devoting her spare time to educating the local community on ways to maintain healthy nutrition. But the work ethic required to become a research scientist is similar, she said, and the potential to help more people improve their quality of life has made her professional transition worthwhile.

“In the kitchen or the lab, it’s the same principles: precision, efficiency, and delivering a product your team can reproduce. As a researcher, I want to keep using those skills to engage people and give them the knowledge they need to take control of their personal health.”

Bridges to the Baccalaureate is one of several programs jointly administered through the Biocomplexity Institute and Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative. Like all the institute’s educational initiatives, it’s designed to help aspiring scientists get early access to hands-on research experiences. Participants of these programs have gone on to launch successful careers at the Department of Defense, Bloomberg, and Amazon.

“Getting your foot in the door of that first laboratory is a critical moment in the life of any scientist,” said Kristy Collins, senior project associate for education and outreach at the Biocomplexity Institute. “Bridges to the Baccalaureate focuses on prep for applying to advanced degree programs so we can make sure those doors continue to open up for our students after they leave the lab.”

For Carlos Aponte, the recent months have been full of exciting changes. Last year, he left home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to attend community college in the U.S. His fascination with biology led him to attend a number of scientific symposiums before an inspiring field trip to the National Institutes of Health finally convinced him to start applying for summer research programs. Now, in the final weeks of Bridges to the Baccalaureate, he said the next steps in his educational journey are clear.

“I feel like getting here was half the battle. Having the support of my family back in Puerto Rico plus the opportunity to participate in the laboratory was what motivated me even more to keep my focus. Working alongside my mentor, Carla Finkielstein, was an unforgettable experience. Now I know for certain that I want to keep dedicating my summers to research — hopefully here at Virginia Tech.”  

Equal parts creativity and computation

A few miles outside of Washington, D.C., on Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus, a group of Arlington County public officials has gathered to hear another set of students deliver the results of their summer research projects. Today’s topic: how local data flows can be leveraged to improve essential public services.

The presenters come from around the country: graduate students and undergrads, aspiring scholars in economics, physics, biology, and stats. Data Science for the Public Good (DSPG), an NSF-funded summer research program run by faculty in the Biocomplexity Institute’s Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory, brought them together.

“DSPG isn’t just about teaching students to run statistical programs and crunch numbers,” said laboratory Director Sallie Keller. “We’re giving them the opportunity to work with local leaders, define critical issues facing their communities, and identify data sources that can guide more effective policy decision-making.”

The laboratory's push to apply data science in our local communities builds on the Biocomplexity Institute’s long-term commitment to use “real-world” problems as a guide for new research initiatives as well as Virginia Tech’s partnership with the White House-backed MetroLab Network

data science for the public good students

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Nine graduate and undergraduate students from across the country took part in this summer's Data Science for the Public Good program.

“The kind of problem-solving we’re being pushed to do is really equal parts creativity and computation,” said Emily Stark, a 2016 DSPG fellow majoring in mathematics at Austin Peay State University. “It’s kind of like playing 'Jeopardy.' The county has given us all the answers in its data, our job is to discover how that information links back to their major questions.”

As the students present the conclusions they’ve developed during 10 weeks of summer research, it’s clear that the issues being addressed can have incredibly high stakes: enabling faster response times for local firefighters; creating better tools to help citizens stay informed during natural disasters.

One student group conducted research with Arlington’s fire department to develop a model that could help predict which regions are likely to contain the highest concentration of homes without functioning smoke alarms. Using data from the county’s “Operation Firesafe” program, they advised the department to prioritize public outreach efforts in the southwestern section of Arlington where older homes were far less likely to contain fire detection systems.

“None of us came into this experience as coders or data science experts,” said Madison Arnsbarger, a rising senior majoring in economics and sociology at Virginia Tech. “What we’ve come away with is a skill set that can be applied in any field to help policy deliver on its promises, to explore how the work we devote our careers to can do the most good for the broadest possible audience.”

Finding a home in interdisciplinary research

While these summer research initiatives begin to wind down, a new burst of activity has begun within each of the Biocomplexity Institute’s Leading Laboratories: faculty mentors are preparing to welcome the next wave of students participating in the Biocomplexity Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Re-launched earlier this year, the program allows Virginia Tech students to supplement their classroom learning experiences with hands-on research activities.

“As a research institute of Virginia Tech, we were founded to tackle ‘big picture’ challenges that don’t fit neatly within any one scientific field,” said Chris Barrett, executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute. “Here, students from all academic backgrounds can find a home in interdisciplinary research. They acquire a new vocabulary for framing complex issues. Meanwhile their unique passions and proficiencies keep pointing us toward new sources of data, new contexts to test our technologies."

A faculty mentor overseeing undergraduate researchers at the Biocomplexity Institute

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Undergraduate researchers in the Biocomplexity Research Experience for Undergraduates program receive hands-on experience with the institute's world-class faculty and research facilities.

Last year, the 100+ students employed by the Biocomplexity Institute made a major impact, contributing to projects that have helped predict the spread of the Zika virus and established an information network capable of simulating world-wide disaster scenarios in a matter of seconds.  The program will extend these opportunities even further, providing undergraduates with year-round access to both paid and for-credit research positions.

“Many students working to pay their way through college literally cannot afford to devote their time to an extracurricular research experience,” said Kristy Collins. “By offering paid positions, we’re able to open our laboratory doors to a much broader population.”

This mission reflects a broader commitment to build diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration into Virginia Tech’s learning communities. These values are emphasized in the university’s signature educational initiatives, such as InclusiveVT and Beyond Boundaries.

“Virginia Tech has envisioned itself as an inclusive learning environment, one that prepares its graduates to be experts in both their chosen subject area and the broader context that surrounds it,” said Karen Eley Sanders, Virginia Tech’s associate vice provost for college access. “Making that vision a reality requires us to give students access to a broader range of learning experiences than ever before.”

Written by Dan Rosplock.

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