Course Simulates Real-World Research

Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Matt MacManes has his head in the clouds. That’s because this innovative Assistant Professor of Genomics has revitalized a genetics course at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) by incorporating Amazon cloud computing. With access to a massive virtual machine to store and access data and programs over the internet, MacManes’ students will be among the first in UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) to work the way they would as scientists in the real world.

“For my own research, I use a virtual machine 24/7,” says MacManes, whose focus in the MacManes Lab is on understanding the links between the genetic makeup of an organism (genotype) and the physical expression of those genes (phenotype). MacManes and his team explore these links in a wide variety of taxonomic groups, including desert mice, ladybug beetles, and poison dart frogs, using genomics and population genetics.

The type of virtual machine upon which MacManes relies is not readily available in the classroom. Even if the open-source operating system Linux was installed on every computer in the lab, it still wouldn’t fully meet MacManes needs as a professor in teaching his students how to—among developing other skills—analyze genomic data. “The beauty of the cloud is that I can set up a virtual machine that’s perfectly configured to what the course requires,” says MacManes. “My students can log into the lab computers or any other computer across campus—even their own laptops, tablets, or smart phones—and still work after the class is over, ” says MacManes.

The use of cloud computing provides students with an experience that matches doing their own research in the real world.

In order to make cloud computing part of his genetics course, MacManes applied for an educational grant from Amazon. “The very next day, I received approval,” says MacManes, who will distribute the access codes to his students in the fall. “They’ll learn how to sequence genomic data, how to find the interesting bits in the sequence, and how to relate genetic information to how an organism looks.”

Twenty students are enrolled in the Genomics and Bioinformatics course, which is open to undergraduates and graduate students who have successfully completed Introduction to Genetics. Incorporating the use of cloud computing provides a rare opportunity for MacManes’ students. “Education can sometimes be reductive and abstract, but here they’ll be doing what they’d do in their own research in the future,” says MacManes. “It’s the depth of this kind of experience that makes this course cool.”