MICDE and ARC support efforts to increase STEMM literacy, democratize medical research

By Eric Shaw
Office of the Vice President for Research

Two research units at the University of Michigan are providing an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization with high-performance computing tools and resources so that they can work to democratize medical research and increase gene literacy within the community.

The Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering (MICDE) and Advanced Research Computing (ARC) have been working with the team at miRcore over the past five years to support its volunteer program that aims to mentor high-school students in computational biology. Their mentorship program integrates science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

“It is a noble goal and a far-reaching vision to democratize science by proposing that anyone should be able to participate in research that intrigues them,” said Krishna Garikipati, professor of mechanical engineering and mathematics and director of MICDE, a unit based within the Office of the Vice President for Research.

“Supporting miRcore’s mission to mentor high-school students not only supports young researchers by enhancing their learning skills, but it also expands the reach of computational science overall.”

MICDE and ARC provide access to and support for the U-M high-performance computing cluster known as Great Lakes. The MICDE team has helped the nonprofit connect with affiliated faculty and the broader U-M research community. MICDE also cosponsors miRcore high-school research conferences and supports the program’s research endeavors.

The nonprofit has developed various programs that effectively deliver teen education in STEMM outside the classroom setting, focused on raising awareness of genetic effects on health through activities requiring teamwork and leadership. miRcore programs have served over 5,500 students over the past ten years.

With MICDE and ARC support, and the volunteer program as their core program, miRcore offers more annual educational activities, such as exposing high-school students to hands-on biotechnology experiments in collaboration with high-school teachers, a high-school student club that disseminates information from volunteer leaders to their peers about genes in diseases and symptoms, and summer camps concentrated on computational biology, biotechnology and R Programming Research.“Offering high-performance computing resources to an organization like miRcore, which allows high-school researchers to explore computational science, while working on solutions to many of today’s critical challenges in medical science, aligns with the ARC mission,” said Brock Palen, director of ARC, a unit based within U-M Information Technology Services.

“Empowering the researchers of tomorrow with the knowledge they need to make a positive lasting impact is an important piece of what we do at Michigan.”

High school and college miRcore volunteers recently put their knowledge of RNA medicine to work and launched a COVID-19 vaccine advocacy initiative to help reduce vaccine hesitancy. Volunteers reached out to people in their networks to discuss concerns about the vaccine and provide others with information they could use to make an informed decision about their health.

“HPC clusters are accessed through a command line with no graphical interface. This is scary or foreign to most high-school students, but accessing U-M HPC systems thanks to MICDE and ARC support is an unprecedented, even awe-inspiring experience,” said Inhan Lee, Ph.D., miRcore founder and leader of the organization’s student outreach efforts.

“At first confused, once they connect with the HPC and run some commands, they feel like programmers. Such experience boosts their confidence and their familiarity with programming. The students also become inclined to choose computer-related STEMM fields, thus supporting our mission to cultivate citizen-scientists.”

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