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Working in the Cyber Universe

By Surbhi Patel, NASA Space Grant Intern for CyVerse

My internship with NASA Space Grant has been the highlight of my senior year. Working at CyVerse has opened my eyes to the world of data-driven science and its impact. The work of CyVerse has assured me that scientists have the necessary resources to use ingenuity to develop and solve grand challenges faced by life scientists today.

The Arizona NASA Space Grant Program funds undergraduate and graduate student research and public engagement initiatives to contribute to the U.S. scientific enterprise. The focus of my NASA Space Grant project was on increasing visibility for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and their application to society. The demand for STEM fields is increasing, with up to a 62 percent increase in some STEM jobs projected by the year 2020.

I elected to work primarily with high school students to encourage interest in STEM fields. Currently, 44 percent of 2013 U.S. high school graduates are ready for college-level math and 36 percent of 2013 U.S. high school students are ready for college-level science, according to the National Math Science Initiative’s STEM Education Statistics. Working to generate interest in STEM fields among high school populations, I used an interdisciplinary approach to showcase the relevance of STEM fields by integrating computer science and biology through CyVerse.

NASA Space Grant Intern for CyVerse, Surbhi PatelI created a binary activity to give students an introduction to computer science, the relevant skills to be a computer scientist, and how their work impacts society. Next, the students discussed what it takes to be a biologist, and the impact of biologists in society. Finally, I engaged the students in an activity that showed how computer scientists help solve relevant problems in biology.

To this end, I used DNA Subway, which is a bioinformatics analysis tool hosted by CyVerse that provides genome analysis, sequence relationships, and builds phylogenetic trees. Using the DNA Subway’s Blue Line and sample data provided by CyVerse, the students first visualized genomic sequences and then compared them between organisms such as rice and corn. Using DNA Subway, I highlighted the ease with which computer science allowed us to read the genomic sequences. Next, we developed phylogenetic trees, which enabled students to observe the close relationships between species such as rice, corn, and barley. This activity demonstrated the relevance of scientists in STEM fields today.

We then brainstormed ideas about why it’s useful to understand the intersection of computer science and biology to solve challenges faced by society. One student suggested that if we know that two crops are very closely related, then we could potentially infer what kind of fertilizers or pesticides would best work with these species.

As I developed this outreach project, I learned to communicate effectively, and become an advocate for STEM fields. I learned to simplify concepts for students and avoid using confusing jargon. Teaching high school students – an integral part of the public – has been a fantastic opportunity.

During my own high school years, it seemed that STEM-related courses were not so popular to many students. It felt as if there was a culture of distinct apathy or disinterest in science – as though STEM subjects were put upon a pedestal to view from afar. In contrast, I was mesmerized by science, and enrolled in every advanced course available at my school, ranging from AP Biology to AP Calculus to AP Chemistry.

My intention with my NASA Space Grant project was to demonstrate that anyone can study STEM subjects. Part of my motivation to work on STEM outreach was to reduce the preconceived notion that STEM fields are for the smart few. Post-activity survey results showed that 67 percent of the 202 students I engaged were interested in computer science after my outreach efforts, compared to only 38 percent interested students prior to my presentation. Moreover, a majority of students enjoyed the activities, including the binary activity and building phylogenetic trees on DNA Subway. These results show that my outreach efforts were successful at engaging high school student interest in computer science.

This internship was successful because of the open atmosphere that CyVerse provided for me, and the willingness of teachers in Tucson who allowed me to engage their students in my outreach endeavors. Thank you for such a memorable and impactful internship, CyVerse.

Image credit: NASA Space Grant Intern Surbhi Patel (image courtesy of Surbhi Patel)