Training the next generation

University students gain hands-on experience of a new DNA sequencing technology
27 May 2016

Interview with 

Yaniv Erlich, Columbia University


A criticism often levelled at undergraduate science degrees is that a lot of spoon Hackathonefeeding goes on and there's not enough emphasis placed on acquiring practical skills and the ability to think "outside the box". These are critical assets for a successful scientific career, particularly when it comes to the emerging and fast moving field of molecular biology. So why do we often wait until a student embarks on a PhD before giving them the chance to discover whether they really are cut out for this line of work? Yaniv Erlich has taken this DNA bull by the horns and set up a special class for his students at Columbia University where they were given a mobile DNA sequencing device and told to decode what was in a postdoc's dinner...

Yaniv - Our idea was to let the students have hands-on experience with DNA sequencing technologies. Part of this class was that Sophie, my post-doc left a DNA from her food over a week. And she prepared DNA libraries and gave it to the students. They used these mobile DNA device to sequence the DNA from her food and they had to guess. They had to find what she ate. The whole concept here was to show them end to end how to generate, analyse, and infer results from DNA experiments.

Chris - Why did you decide to launch on this particular topic in the first place? Why do this?

Yaniv - The vision that we and others share is that we're going to see this era of ubiquitous DNA sequencing. So we want to have the students a glimpse to the future and also to train them in a way that they will help us to bring this future so they can think what they can do with this device. They can really realise the potential of this device by touching and playing with it writing some software to analyse its data and so on.

Chris - How did they respond? How did it go down with the class? Did the students take to it?

Yaniv - Yeah. So the students were highly enthusiastic about the class. I have to admit this is the first time that I'm teaching so I was a bit nervous before the class started in general. But the feedback was just fantastic. They love this class. They appreciated that we exposed them to an early on technology. One thing that was interesting to see, they are used to technologies that are near perfection. Let's say, cell phones or their operating systems on the computers. Now, this device is not yet perfected. There are still some gaps. They need to find work around, they need to tinker. It was interesting to see how they react to something that is not yet perfected, is not in a production grade I would say. But they're engineers and it's part of their training - is really to see things at an early stage and to think how they can evolve them, how they can help to mature this device, and how they can find work arounds.

Chris - I suppose in that respect, it's quite a nice prelude to what to expect from a career in science where people don't hand you a solution on a plate like they often are criticised for doing during an undergraduate degree.

Yaniv - Exactly. We got a feedback from some of the students that this is the first time that they feel in their undergraduate degree that they do science.

Chris - So that was what they learned. What did you learn and how does this inform what you do next with this project?

Yaniv - So, we learned how to design this experiment and how to engage the students. You can get quite a lot from a group of undergraduates and masters students that are highly enthusiastic about the devices. In the second Hackathon that was done around - the main topic was forensics, we in fact, started a research project in my group after the results of one of the Hackathon groups with the device. They came up with a very interesting algorithm and we said that this might be a research project so we should take on and really expand these preliminary leads that they found in the class.

Chris - Big trend now though to take things even lower and further down than that undergraduate level and people are talking about going into schools with this kind of thing. Do you think this is the kind of thing that could be used to encourage even younger learners, people before they've even gone to university to show them what they could be doing scientifically and then nurture more of that scientific spirit so we get more people going to university to study science?

Yaniv - Yeah. I think this device had a potential to go to schools. The main challenge is to create a curriculum around this device. We need to give the teachers a box with all their experimental setting, with the lesson plans that they can really conduct that in their class. This is something that we are actively thinking of - how we can take this device and build some curriculum around it to introduce it to high school students.


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