UCLA awarded grant from the National Institutes of Health

From Stuart Wolpert |

UCLA has been awarded a grant of more than $1.6 million from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The five-year grant will enable UCLA to expand its Bruins-in-Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program, which brings undergraduates from across the country, including from historically Black colleges and universities, to UCLA to conduct research and learn the latest data analysis techniques and skills.

With the assistance of the grant, Bruins-in-Genomics has launched the Dental, Oral & Craniofacial Research Training Program, which will give 20 undergraduates the opportunity to work with a dozen faculty members in the UCLA School of Dentistry each summer.

The 21st century has seen a huge surge in the pace at which data is being collected in all areas of life sciences, said Alexander Hoffmann, director of UCLA’s Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences and a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. Life scientists are unlocking the biological basis of health and disease by tapping the power of big data and computational modeling, he added.

It is vital to create a pool of dentist scientists and oral health researchers with the skills to analyze and make sense of this wealth of data, said Dr. David Wong, professor of oral biology and associate dean of research in the UCLA School of Dentistry, who conducts basic and applied research concerning oral cancer. He is enthusiastic to recruit, train and nurture undergraduate trainees of diverse backgrounds for career development in dental, oral and craniofacial research.

Biosciences graduate programs and also biomedical professional schools, including schools of dentistry, are rapidly adapting their curricula toward a greater emphasis on quantitative analysis skills, according to Hoffmann and Wong.

In addition to training a workforce of scientists with more advanced quantitative and computational skills, Wong believes it is crucial that biomedical and oral health scientists reflect the growing diversity of the nation in order to address the needs of an increasingly diverse population.

The Bruins-in-Genomics: Dental, Oral & Craniofacial Research Training Program will bring together a diverse group of applicants, including students from underrepresented minority groups and disadvantaged backgrounds. The program will focus on teaching data analysis and statistical tools and skills; mentoring and supporting students in applying these skills to a practical research project in dental, oral and craniofacial research; and providing enrichment activities to teach the skills needed to apply to dental, graduate and professional education for careers in a dentistry-related field.

The Bruins-in-Genomics Summer Undergraduate Research Program is highly selective, receiving more than 300 applications every year. The eight-week program has grown from 22 undergraduates in 2015 to 50 students in 2019. This past summer, 70 students participated, albeit remotely, due to safer-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students attend genetic sequencing analysis workshops and weekly science presentations by researchers, meet with faculty advisers and participate with institute postdoctoral fellows in skill-building courses on the analysis of genomic data, among other activities. The students are selected based on their academic excellence, abilities in the computational biosciences and promise for future achievement, Hoffmann said.

Many of the students pursue graduate degrees in the biological or biomedical sciences. Of those who have completed their bachelor’s degree, most have started doctorate or master’s degree programs in bioinformatics or related fields, including at UCLA.

Hoffmann initiated BIG Summer in 2015, and since the beginning of the program, he has worked with Matteo Pellegrini and Hilary Coller, professors of molecular, cell and developmental biology; Jeanette Papp, adjunct professor of human genetics; and Eleazar Eskin, professor and chair of the computational medicine department.