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Interdisciplinary Explorations in Genomics

Research Summary

Major areas of Hunt Willard's research include genetic and genomic studies of X chromosome inactivation, functional genomics of human and other mammalian centromeres, creation of human artificial chromosomes as a tool for genome exploration, and the epigenetic basis of gene silencing. His HHMI project provided undergraduates interested in a research career with a coherent four-year research experience in the genome sciences. It consisted of a series of interdisciplinary courses that tie genomics and its implications for science and society, laboratory research experiences, a literature-based course, and a course in scientific writing.

Project Summary
The aim of this project was to provide a coherent four-year research experience in the genome sciences for motivated science undergraduates with an interest in pursuing research careers. The project was based in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and consisted of three separate, but related, activities. First, a group of 30 first-year students were introduced to the genome sciences and their implications for health and society through a series of four related courses, offered as part of Duke's FOCUS (First-year Opportunity for Comprehensive, Unified Study) program in the first semester of college. The Genome Revolution FOCUS was explicitly tied to initial research opportunities in the laboratory during the freshman year and during the summer between freshman and sophomore years. Students applied what they learned in the course, gaining early familiarity with large datasets and inquiry-driven design of lab-based and computational experimentation in areas such as genome biology, comparative genomics, cancer genomics, pharmacogenomics, and evolutionary genomics. For selected students, these research opportunities then extended into the second year to complement their other coursework.

A second activity involved an advanced literature-based course in the genome sciences, designed for 10 to 15 students in their junior year, which entailed working in groups to design research approaches to a selected set of open-ended questions in genetics and genomics. Teams included both experimentally and computationally oriented students, working together to design approaches to explore questions generated from reading the primary research literature in the genome sciences. Each team worked with advanced graduate students or postdoctoral fellows who wished to gain experience in research mentoring and management. The goal of the course was to enable students to work effectively with large datasets and to allow interdisciplinary teams to design a comprehensive series of experiments in the genome sciences. Another goal was to link the design work in the classroom to actual open-ended experimentation, with research extending throughout the junior year and during the summer.

The third activity, the culmination of the second, was the development of a ““capstone”” course in the genome sciences for students in their senior year. In this course, students pursued research questions arrived at during their junior year. In addition to research, the course consisted of weekly seminar discussions, involving seniors, advanced graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows who worked in the same laboratories, to interpret current data, plan next steps, and discuss new approaches. This course was the culmination of the multiyear research project, with a final goal of preparing an honor's thesis, a paper for publication, and/or a talk for presentation at a national conference.

Research Summary
Our research interests include human genetics, genome biology, epigenetics, and implications of the genome sciences for medicine and society. Major areas of investigation have included genetic and genomic studies of X chromosome inactivation, functional genomics of human and other mammalian centromeres, creation of human artificial chromosomes as a tool for genome exploration, and the epigenetic basis of gene silencing.

Last updated September 2006

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Duke University
Genetics