Jason Van Houten

Jason Van Houten, a 2011 College of Wooster graduate and currently a research assistant at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), makes a presentation about RNA sequencing at the Northeast Ohio Bioinformatics Workshop and Jamboree, held last week at The College of Wooster.


Bioinformatics Workshop Helps Make ‘Big Data’ More Accessible

Three-day event draws large number of graduate and undergraduate students to The College of Wooster

June 6, 2013 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — A proliferation of “Big Data” in the life sciences — as in many other fields — has created significant challenges for those who seek to analyze it, but a recent workshop at The College of Wooster helped to make the process more accessible.

Dean Fraga, Danforth Professor of Biology at Wooster, assembled a group of scientists to explain the various aspects of the process at the Northeast Ohio Bioinformatics Workshop and Jamboree, which was held last week on Wooster’s campus. The three-day event drew an enthusiastic group of more than 40 graduate and undergraduate students seeking to learn effective techniques for gathering and evaluating the data.

“Our goal was to make sure those who attended were aware of the tools available while understanding their limitations and learning how to generate hypotheses that must be tested,” said Fraga. “The challenge for all of us is to find out how to query the databases intelligently and then apply the data to our research.”

Among the 10 presenters was Jason Van Houten, a 2011 College of Wooster graduate and currently a research assistant at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). Van Houten, a double major in mathematics and biochemistry and molecular biology while at Wooster, spoke about RNA sequencing, a process that provides access to information about gene expression. “It’s like a snapshot,” said Van Houten. “It gives you all the information at that moment. What makes it so revolutionary is that you can look at every gene in the genome, not just a few at a time. As a result, you get a lot more information.”

The topic was of keen interest to many at the workshop, including Allison Grenell, a rising junior biochemistry and molecular biology major at Wooster. “I am working this summer at the OARDC, and I was not familiar with this process, but Jason’s session was very helpful,” said Grenell. “I learned so much about RNA sequencing. He solidified the scientific concepts that weren’t clear to me before his session.”

Ananda Menon, a rising senior biology major at Wooster, was also grateful for the workshop. “I want to go to grad school and study molecular evolution, so this workshop was very valuable for me,” he said. “I learned some useful skills that we are not exposed to in our regular courses.”

Edmund Shi, a rising junior biochemistry major saw both short- and long-term benefits in the workshop. “I learned skills that will definitely help next semester, but also those that will help in graduate school or medical school,” he said.

Undergraduates were not the only beneficiaries of the workshop. Jake Wenger, a graduate research associate in the Department of Entomology at the OARDC, said that attending events like this is part of a regular regimen for him to keep current with the latest techniques. “The ways in which data are manipulated are always changing,” he said. “It’s important to learn what’s new, what’s working, and what’s not.”

Wenger and others noted the importance of learning and understanding the latest software, including a program called “Galaxy,” which proved to be very useful in mining and analyzing large amounts of data.

Also presenting at the workshop were Bill Morgan, Rick Lehtinen, Sofia Visa from The College of Wooster; Brian McSpadden Gardner, Reed Johnson, Asela Wijeratne, and Saranga Wijeratne from the OARDC; and Andor Kiss from Miami University.