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by Robin Mejia
The third-floor lab of Byers Hall on the campus of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is filling quickly. Even before teaching assistant Evelyn Chang arrives with a cart of pipettes and protein samples, one team of students commandeers the bench at the window. Soon, three other groups take up positions within shoving distance of each other.
Technically, this is the first day of spring break. But this morning, the first-year graduate students—all enrolled in the bioinformatics and biophysics programs at UCSF—assembled to hear about the exercise that will occupy most of their waking hours for the next week. The 19 students will use the equipment Chang just delivered to analyze a set of mystery histones—proteins that help DNA compact in a cell's nucleus. In a nearby computer lab, they'll use a software program to model the large and complex histone molecules and propose ways for researchers to change a histone's structure and interaction with the DNA it helps compact—changes that might, for example, turn a gene from on to off.
The exercise, called a team challenge, is part of a new training program, 1 of 10 funded by HHMI in conjunction with the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering that focuses on interdisciplinary research. The bioinformatics and biophysics programs at UCSF accept students with undergraduate degrees in biology, computer science, math, and physics. The team challenge exercise forces students with different expertise to collaborate and helps them break down sociological barriers and form functional social networks.
“This is how science is done now,” says HHMI investigator Joe DeRisi, who developed the training program with UCSF colleague and HHMI investigator David Agard. Interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists is answering questions in fields from neuroscience to aging to genomics, and the program organizers are working to reinforce that concept. DeRisi ran a similar challenge for the students during winter break.
The students are doing real science. Assistant professor Geeta Narlikar, who designed the lab component, studies histones. Her colleague Tanja Kortemme, who created the modeling component, is an expert in protein redesign. But no one has tried the particular redesign they're having the students do. If any of the students' designs are good enough, Narlikar has promised to build the molecules.
Illustration: Holly Wales / zeegenrush.com