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Feature - Grid computing promotes diversity in biotech

Feature - Grid promotes diversity in biotechnology at Virginia State

Image courtesy of VSU, Biology department.

Biotechnology is one of the fastest-growing sectors in science, but it suffers from a lack of diversity in its workforce, as do many other scientific fields. Recent studies* suggest that African-Americans and Hispanics lag behind whites for higher-paying biotech jobs by the largest margins in about a decade.

Researchers at Virginia State University, an institution designated by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), are addressing this imbalance by using grid technology as a resource to teach students and educators about bioinformatics.

Glenn Harris, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at VSU, used grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health to obtain a 12-node cluster server and the iNquiry bioinformatics software suite developed by The BioTeam, Inc. The software uses SunGridEngine technology to schedule computational tasks and distribute them among the different nodes, thus allowing many students from a class or workshop to submit computationally-intensive jobs simultaneously and obtain results quickly.

Virginia State University professors attend a bioinformatics workshop to learn about the capabilities of the cluster server and its bioinformatics applications.
Image courtesy of Larry Brown, VSU.

Instructors already use this technology in upper-level classes at VSU to provide critical bioinformatics training. For example, students from Brian Sayre's Techniques in Molecular Biology course are using the BLAST software (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) to search for similar sequences of transcribed protein-coding genes from different species.

"We're trying to raise awareness in our students of opportunities in biotechnology," said Sayre. "The distributed computing environment will really help us prepare them for what they'll likely experience in their future careers."

In addition, Harris is developing a workshop series for students and educators from neighboring high schools and HBCUs to acquaint them with the tools, resources and opportunities available in VSU's biotechnology program, and in biotechnology in general.

"Demonstrating the resources that are available on the server and how they're used to solve real problems can be our best recruitment tool," said Harris. "The grid technology is allowing VSU to be better prepared to recruit and train students to meet the ever-changing demands of biotechnology careers."

-Anne Heavey, iSGTW, with Glenn Harris, VSU

* Reported by msnbc.msn.com in Racial disparities persist in higher-paying jobs (AP), which references data from the U.S Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.

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