Students produce videos to learn about genomics

By Katie Penrod, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 20, 2015

Since the beginning of the semester, students in Biology 144 have been creating documentary projects related to genomics. The documentaries will be uploaded to YouTube on Wednesday.

A branch of biotechnology, genomics focuses on applying genetics and molecular biology to genetic mapping and the sequencing of genes, or complete sets of genes known as genomes. The results are often compiled in a database and then applied to medicine, biology and other aspects of human life.

Vincent Denef, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said the class covers a variety of topics, including many facets of society impacted by genomics, such as medical treatments and agricultural methods. He said the social issues discussed in the class are sometimes controversial, with many of the films shown featuring topics like employer discrimination based on health history and issues of race and gender.

“There’s a lot of social issues,” he said. “We can look at the sequencing and see how people are different and ask, ‘Are there different categories of people?’ There’s a lot of biological determinism, there’s things that have gone on for a long time and they’ve been used sort of by both sides to make their argument.”

Rackham student Senay Yitbarek, a graduate student instructor for the class, emphasized the importance of teaching students how to interpret genomic data and apply the information to other issues.

“The main thing is to make the connection between science and society,” Yitbarek said. “As teachers, as people in academia, we do have a responsibility in transcending this kind of information. I think for the students the main goal is allowing them to really interpret when they read a news article or get informed somehow that they can make intelligent decisions based on what they know about genomes, genes and some of the particular machinery around that.”

Denef said the documentary projects have allowed each group of students to study a topic of their choosing in depth — an opportunity he would not otherwise have been able to provide from lecture.

LSA freshman Kelsey Fox said her project focuses on biological sex in relation to the definition of gender. Fox said interviewinga variety of people for the project has been the most signficant part of it.

“We interviewed a lot of students about what they felt about their own gender identity and what they thought sex versus gender meant,” Fox said. “Then we talked to professors and specialists and it was interesting to see how many opposing views there are even within a bunch of people who are generally in agreement.”

Both Denef and Yitbarek said the students received help from technological experts at the Duderstadt Center throughout the semester.

“It also gave them some skills because there’s something independent of this project that’s just being good at sort of bringing some information and condensing it down into a visual medium. That is something that can benefit the students in whatever careers they go into later on,” Denef said.

Denef said he believes these videos can impact both the students and the University community.

“I hope that this gives them more of a lasting impact than what a regular class would give them,” he said. “In a way also now, because it’s a relatively small class, we try to use the opportunity to also make things available for people to watch and to reach a broader audience and inform more people.”