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Undergraduate computational biology workshop aims to open doors for liberal arts students

<ast weekend, undergraduate students from Carleton, as well as students from neighboring liberal arts colleges Grinnell and Macalester, attended a Computational Biology Workshop held in the Weitz Center for Creativity. The workshop was organized by Carleton Computer Science Professor Layla Oesper and funded by the National Science Foundation. It is the first of its kind to be held on campus.

The workshop brought in six faculty members from various liberal arts institutions across the country to each lead a ninety minute module on a topic that relates computation to problems in biology. The module leaders had a variety of areas of expertise, allowing the workshop to cover a wide range of real-life applications of computational biology. Each module consisted of a lecture-style component, containing introductory background material, followed by a hands-on component. This gave students an opportunity to try out and experiment with the tools they learned, and a chance to interact with the module leaders as well as with other students.

One of the main goals of the workshop was to expand the computational biology community among both students and faculty members at Carleton and other liberal arts colleges, and to introduce students to a subject they would not have necessarily seen otherwise.

“I wanted to reach out to other institutions where, as a small liberal arts college, you might not have someone in the faculty who does [computational biology] … I want students to know that there is a whole field out there and open the door to it,” Oesper said. She also stressed that even at schools like Carleton that offer computational biology courses, students in these courses may not have opportunities to gain exposure to the breadth of the field. Oesper explained that her students only get to see the field through the lens that she sees it through; she wants her students to see beyond the sliver of computational biology that she works on.

Biology is changing rapidly now more than ever due to constant technological advancements, allowing biologists to ask and answer questions that they could not have just years prior. The workshop showed students that there are numerous biological problems out there for which computation will be essential to future progress. Thus, in order to be able to participate in the world of modern biology, students will have to learn new computational tools. Carleton biology professor Rika Anderson, who taught the “Binning Genomes from Metagenomes” module of the workshop, said the workshop “gave students the confidence to realize that they can do [computational biology]. It showed them that it’s not that scary to open up a computer and work with what can be a huge amount of biological data.”

Out of about 20 attendees, around three-fourths of the students at the workshop were Carleton students, but the group also included several students from Grinnell and one student from Macalester. Students from all class years and from a large range of majors, including physics, mathematics, statistics, biology and computer science, as well as undecided students, participated in the workshop. All participants had taken at least an introductory computer science course prior to the workshop. “Sixty-eight percent of students [attending the workshop] said they had no experience of computational biology. One of the things I wanted to do was get people exposed, so that’s an exciting number,” said Oesper.

After attending a similar event run by a member of the biology department at Reed College several years ago, Oesper was inspired to organize a workshop that focused more on the computer-science-oriented, rather than biology-oriented, aspects of computational biology. She began planning the workshop two and a half years ago, and wrote the grant proposal that included her plans for the workshop in the summer of 2016.
The workshop’s module leaders consisted of professors who Oesper had previously met in meetings, as well as professors who had been recommended to her. Module leaders hailed from Carleton, Grinnell, Macalester, Reed, Rhodes and Swarthmore, and they included faculty from both computer science and biology departments.

Oesper would like the workshop to become a regular event and hopes to one day write plans for another grant to achieve this. “I would say the event was a success… I would definitely teach again if the workshop gets held again,” Anderson said. Anderson also encourages Carleton students who were not able to attend the workshop but are still interested in the field to take the computational biology classes offered on campus.

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