DAVIDSON, N.C. - Emily Oldham appears destined to become a doctor, but destiny will dictate that she practice a very different brand of medicine than her physician father and dentist mother.
Growing up in a medical household in Lynchburg, Va., led Emily toward the study of the healing arts from her earliest memories. But by the time this Davidson College sophomore graduates from medical school and begins seeing patients, the emerging field of genomics will have radically changed methods of diagnosis and treatment.
Davidson College is helping Emily and other students prepare for the genomic world by developing two courses that are among the first of their kind at an undergraduate institution.
"I think when we get sick in the future we'll give a pinprick of blood to reveal all the doctor needs to know about what's wrong and how to deal with it," said Laurie Heyer, an assistant professor of mathematics at Davidson who specializes in "bioinformatics," the computational analysis of genomic data.
Heyer's course, and a "genomics" course being developed by Associate Professor Malcolm Campbell of the biology department, will help students at the undergraduate level get training that was previously available only at the graduate level.
First genomics major
Recognizing the impact that genomics will have on her life's career, Oldham has become the first Davidson student to declare herself as a genomics major, designing her course of study through the college's Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.
She and other Davidson students will take Campbell's course in genomics next fall, followed in the spring by Heyer's bioinformatics course, to prepare themselves to grapple intelligently with the complex scientific, ethical, and social issues this field will pose.
Genomics is a new way of looking at cell and molecular biology, facilitated by new technology that allows researchers to decipher the functions of genes. Genes, which are combinations of "base pair" chemicals referred to by their shorthand designation of A, G, C, and T, are the building blocks of life. They combine in humans to create the body's 23 sets of chromosomes that form the classic "double helix" configuration found in every cell.
Scientists have now completely determined the complete "sequence" of the A, G, C, and T for about 30 organisms, most of which are bacteria. However, Campbell noted that the recent publication of preliminary sequence of the 3.1 billion base pairs in the human genome dramatically emphasizes how genomics has opened the door to an entirely new field of scientific investigation.
With a long-term goal of answering questions about the genetic origins of illness, appearance, and behavior, the publication of the data by Celera Genomics and the National Human Genome Research Initiative establishes merely a database that must be analyzed and interpreted to find the answers.
A significant challenge
Those 3.1 billion base pairs form only about 31,000 active human genes.
The function of the rest of the bases is unknown. Spotting the genuine genes amid the morass of meaningless bases presents a significant challenge to computer software.
Software experts like Heyer are developing better systems of data modeling and cluster analysis to identify the genes and predict what they do.
That work will herald a new age in science and medicine, vastly expanding human knowledge and accelerating the diagnosis and treatment of disease, as well as potential preventions and cures.
"It's exciting to be the first person at Davidson to major in genomics," said Emily Oldham. "I don't know what I can contribute to the field now, but I do know that it's an amazing opportunity to be able to work with two knowledgeable professors at this stage of my education. Down the road all this may allow doctors to increase the quality of life for a lot of people we consider hopelessly ill now."
Campbell is working during his sabbatical this year to develop a curriculum and textbook for his new genomics course. Moreover, he has founded the Genetics Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT) to help other professors of undergraduates in the United States and Canada to develop courses and labs for students. GCAT now has about twenty members from college faculty around the country and in Canada, and about 100 readers of its listserv.
Meanwhile, Heyer is developing a course in bioinformatics, the discipline that helps genomics scientists make sense of the data their experiments reveal. Genomics and bioinformatics are so closely related that Heyer is writing "math minutes" for Campbell's book, explaining in brief fashion the mathematics behind the science. Their book is now being considered for publication by several publishers. In the meantime, they are preparing to publish many of the lessons on the Internet at www.bio.davidson.edu / Biology / Courses/genomics / genomics.html.
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