NIDCR Grant to Support UCLA Undergrad Bioinformatics Program

Dentistry Today
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA


Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) has received a five-year grant of more than $1.6 million from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) to expand its Bruins-in-Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

The program brings undergraduates from across the country, including from historically black colleges and universities, to UCLA to conduct research and learn the latest data analysis techniques and skills.

With the assistance of the grant, Bruins-in-Genomics has launched the Dental, Oral & Craniofacial Research Training Program, which will give 20 undergraduates the opportunity to work with a dozen faculty members in the UCLA School of Dentistry each summer.

The 21st century has seen a huge surge in the pace at which data is being collected in all areas of life sciences, said Alexander Hoffman, director of UCLA’s Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences and a professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics.

Also, life scientists are unlocking the biological basis of health and disease and by tapping the power of big data and computational modeling, Hoffman said.

It is vital to create a pool of dentist scientists and oral health researchers with the skills to analyze and make sense of this wealth of data, said Dr. David Wong, professor of oral biology and associate dean of research at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Wong, who conducts basic and applied research concerning oral cancer, is enthusiastic to recruit, train, and nurture undergraduate trainees of diverse backgrounds for career development in dental, oral, and craniofacial research.

Biosciences graduate programs and biomedical professional schools, including schools of dentistry, are rapidly adapting their curricula toward a greater emphasis on quantitative analysis skills, according to Hoffman and Wong.

In addition to training a workforce of scientists with more advanced quantitative and computational skills, Wong believes it is crucial that biomedical and oral health scientists reflect the growing diversity of the nation to address the needs of an increasingly diverse population.

The Bruins-in-Genomics: Dental, Oral & Craniofacial Research Training Program will bring together a diverse group of applicants, including students from underrepresented minority groups and disadvantaged backgrounds, UCLA said.

The program will focus on teaching data analysis and statistical tools and skills; mentoring and supporting students in applying these skills to a practical research project in dental, oral, and craniofacial research; and providing enrichment activities to teach the skills needed to apply to dental, graduate, and professional education for careers in a dentistry-related field.

The Bruins-in-Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program is highly selective, UCLA said, receiving more than 300 applications each year. The eight-week program has grown from 22 undergrads in 2015 to 50 students in 2019. This past summer, 70 students participated remotely due to safer-at-home orders during the pandemic.

Students attend genetic sequencing analysis workshops and weekly science presentations by researchers, meet with faculty advisers, and participate with institute postdoctoral fellows in skill-building courses on the analysis of genomic data, among other activities.

Students are selected based on their academic excellence, abilities in the computational biosciences, and promise for future achievement, Hoffman said.

Many of the students pursue graduate degrees in the biological or biomedical sciences, UCLA said. Of those who have completed their bachelor’s degree, most have started doctorate or master’s degree programs in bioinformatics or related fields, including at UCLA.

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