Working through complexity

The bioinformatics working group meets every first Friday of every month to present on a variety of topics related to bioinformatics, from how RNA expression affects seal hair follicles in Antarctica, to new ways to increase the flux of carbon through the use of E. coli bacteria. Prior experience in biology is not required to attend the presentations.

“The UAA bioinformatics working group is for anyone interested in learning about bioinformatics and the kinds of projects community members are working on,” Amy Kirkham, UAA Biological Sciences Ph.D. candidate, said.

Bioinformatics is the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. The uses of bioinformatics varies from understanding the function of genes to the way drugs target specific parts of the body.

Kirkham presented in February on how gene expression changes in the skin of Weddell seals across their hair cycle, a portion of her graduate research.

“This is important because it will help us understand why seals molt, or grow new fur, at the time that they do. We know that if seals molt at the wrong time or fail to molt at all, it can have negative impacts on their health, so we need to learn how the molt is regulated to understand what might be going on when it isn’t completed properly,” Kirkham said.

Presentations held at the working group meetings offer insight into the field of bioinformatics for the audience and feedback for the presenters.

“I got a lot of great feedback from the group on how to interpret the data to highlight the most valuable and interesting information,” Kirkham said.

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There are many ways to become involved in the field.

“I think it’s so neat that bioinformatics allows researchers to manage and interpret these millions of data points to get a really comprehensive picture of what’s going on,” Kirkham said.

There is a high demand for those in the field of bioinformatics, according to Brandon Briggs, bioinformatics working group lead.

“Bioinformatics is a key field with not enough people in it. Just look up bioinformatics job postings in Anchorage, there are hundreds of them. It is highly marketable,” Briggs said. “One of the reasons for the presentations is to spread the kind of computational resources we have available to us.

The bioinformatics working group started back in 2015 with the intention of bringing those in the field closer together.

“The [presenters] use the working group as a way to bounce ideas off and see what sort of processes are out there that may work for them,” Briggs said. “The presentations we have are very informal. It is a great way to learn about biology without the pressure that would come with learning in a classroom.”

There are a wide range of resources available to those who wish to delve further into the field of bioinformatics.

“Brandon Briggs offers an excellent, comprehensive bioinformatics course here at UAA, and there are a number of free online introductory bioinformatics courses on platforms like Coursera,” Kirkham said.

Meetings are held every first Friday of the month in Room 105A of the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building.