Ԫ You There, the Professor in the Back Row Easy to print version

You There, the Professor in the Back Row
By Karen Tongue Hammond '64

Some professors write or do research during their sabbatical year. Computer science professors Dan Bergeron and Philip Hatcher sat in the back of a UNH classroom, taking courses along with other students.

What they wanted to learn was how to speak a new language--genetics.

Three years ago, Bergeron enrolled in several biology courses, including Environmental Genomics, taught by W. Kelley Thomas, associate professor of biochemistry. Three computer science graduate students joined Bergeron in his goal of learning enough about DNA and the human genome to figure out how computer science could help UNH geneticists and biology students in their research.

Armed with an understanding of what genetic research entails, Bergeron joined Thomas to co-teach an interdisciplinary version of Thomas's applied bioinformatics course. The result, they say, was a collaboration that energized everyone. "Once the students found they could talk with each other, they really became self-motivated," says Thomas. "They constantly learned from each other, and when they couldn't figure something out, they came to Dan and me. They were always dragging new material out of us."

Class projects focused on newly available genome data for the freshwater crustacean Daphnia. The result was "a major genome-wide analysis of genetic variation," says Thomas, the results of which will be published.

Hatcher, looking for ways that his expertise in parallel computing might be useful to biologists, took biology and genetics courses and was a student in Bergeron and Thomas's course in the spring of his own sabbatical year. He and Bergeron, together with computer science graduate student Morel Henley '05, then collaborated with microbiologist Vaughn Cooper on his study of the pathogens Burkholderia. Some Burkholderia are bioremedial agents that displace known toxic chemicals, but others are potential pathogens for patients with cystic fibrosis and others with immune system deficiencies. The goal was to separate the helpful Burkholderia organisms from the threatening ones.

Is computer science useful in such a study? "The efforts of my computer science colleagues have accelerated my research significantly," says Cooper. "I have access to far more information in an accessible form than I could have imagined a year ago."

As for the professors-turned-students, both say their time in the classroom was rewarding beyond all expectations. "In terms of a sabbatical year, it was the biggest change in direction I've ever taken and the most satisfying," says Bergeron. "And, it was fun!"

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