Adapting Research Training During COVID-19

By Jim Coffman, Ph.D., INBRE Program Director

Adaptation to change is a defining characteristic of life, being essential for survival. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought on seismic change, compelling us all to think creatively about how we are going to adapt. But this process, and indeed any crisis, offers new opportunities for growth and improvement. Our Summer 2020 newsletter explores how the Maine INBRE is adapting to the COVID-19 crisis, with a focus on how our summer undergraduate research fellowship program has been restructured to provide remote mentored research and research training.

Bioinformatics and computational biology are an essential, unifying platform supporting the Maine INBRE scientific theme of Comparative Functional Genomics. Contemporary biomedical research is increasingly defined by an explosion of data (“Big Data”) enabled by high throughput “-omics” approaches.  This explosion has enabled many biomedical problems to be addressed and research questions answered using existing datasets. A major barrier to such research is the knowledge and computational skill needed to interrogate databases, which many experimental biologists lack. Our Bioinformatics Core has responded to COVID-19 by ramping up its efforts in developing online resources to meet that need and facilitate remote research experiences and training.

Although Maine INBRE was not able to retool all its planned summer undergraduate research fellowships into remote research experiences, we were able to do so for many, through the combined efforts of Bioinformatics Core and Research Training and Resources Core staff as well as computationally savvy faculty mentors at several Maine INBRE partner institutions. This newsletter features stories of some of those investigators and their students. At the end of the summer we will evaluate these efforts to identify what worked and what didn’t and use the former to refine and improve our program for online mentored research experiences. A positive outcome of this will be for remote mentoring in bioinformatics and computational biology to become a new mechanism for expanding opportunities for engagement in cutting edge biomedical research, training and employment.

Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the Maine INBRE has continued to move forward with its Developmental Research Project Program, initiating two new projects. Dr. Suegene Noh, an assistant professor of Biology at Colby College, received an Investigator award to support her research project “Identification of genes involved in the crosstalk between a social host and facultative symbionts that can form long-term persistent association”. Dr. Julie Millard, Dr. Gerald and Myra Doro’s Professor of Chemistry at Colby College, received a Research Training Faculty award to support her pilot project “Genomic variation in the equilibrative nucleoside transporter ENT1 in relationship to the human absorption of caffeine”.

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone. Fortunately, through the dedicated efforts of our scientists and support staff we have been able to rise to the challenge and create new opportunities for remote collaborative research involving big data, which may provide a glimpse of a new way science can be done as we approach an uncertain future.