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Nurturing education in Life Sciences and Genomics for the next generation


The Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, located north of Boston, is conducting marine research and providing hands-on training to the local community.

Nurturing education in Life Sciences and Genomics for the next generation
When the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute (GMGI) was founded in 2013, it already had an Illumina connection, as it was founded with the assistance of Illumina co-founder David Walt. Illumina now accepts in-kind donations to help fund its mission.

Gloucester is one of several towns on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which is located north of Boston. For hundreds of years, the region had a thriving fishing industry; however, when fishing declined, so did the community.

GMGI was created to catalyze research, education, and economic growth, with the idea that “the ocean could be a new source of opportunities for human health, as well as stewarding the local waters,” said Executive Director Christine Bolzan.

“It could also be a springboard for a new way of thinking about education in the life sciences.”

Researching and Education on Genomics
GMGI studies marine animals' unique adaptations in order to better understand not only ocean systems, but also human health. Andrea Bodnar, PhD, the Donald G. Comb Science Director, is researching the genetics that enable sea urchins to live for hundreds of years. Bodnar and her colleagues hope to find new ways to combat age-related diseases in humans by better understanding the mechanisms that drive this longevity.

The institute is also studying Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in the Gulf of Maine by sequencing over 200 cod samples with low-coverage whole-genome sequencing. Its researchers created a panel of genetic variants that they use to classify individual fish into one of two seasonal spawning groups, allowing fisheries to manage their populations more sustainably.

GMGI was also the first to sequence the American lobster (Homarus americanus), an iconic and valuable species whose complex genomic data could help researchers study cancer resistance, ageing, and the effects of warming oceans caused by climate change.

GMGI established the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy (Academy) to advance education in the local community. The Academy provides seven months of hands-on training and a three-month paid biotech internship. Private donations covered all tuition costs in 2022, and 95% of Academy graduates found life sciences jobs in the region or went on to enroll in a degree program in biology or chemistry.

“Gloucester High School has one of the lower college attendance rates in the state, and these are young people who, without this opportunity, might never gain access to the life science industry," says Bolzan.

Students learn how to culture cells and sequence DNA and become certified laboratory technicians. To meet the growing demand for entry-level talent among Massachusetts biotech companies, the program recently added a cutting-edge biomanufacturing learning space. The academy's cohort grew from 20 to 42 students with the arrival of the class of 2023 in August. It has been so successful that GMGI is planning to open a second Biotechnology Academy in Boston in 2024.

Students at the Academy begin with intensive hands-on training.

“In 10 months, our students get more bench time than most people would get in a four-year biology degree,” said Education Director John Doyle, PhD. “They get an hour of lecture each day and the rest of the time is spent in the lab.”

GMGI is sponsoring outreach to high schools in Cape Ann and Boston to provide even more educational opportunities. What the Heck is Biotech? is a one-hour program that introduces students to the discipline and its associated educational and career paths.

GMGI hopes to attract companies to Cape Ann by developing this pipeline of trained biotech professionals and marine genomic research expertise. Many Academy graduates move to Boston but would welcome the opportunity to stay in Gloucester.

“We’re trying to make Gloucester and Cape Ann more attractive to companies looking to expand and maybe not pay so much for lab and office space,” says Bolzan. “We have a trained workforce, leading marine genomic researchers, and one of the most beautiful working waterfronts in the country. Gloucester is a great place to do science.”

Connecting to Consumables
In the lab, GMGI researchers use a variety of Illumina sequencers, including the NextSeq 500 and the MiSeq. Illumina has provided reagents, library prep, and other consumables to the Academy program. Next-generation sequencing is an important component of everything the institute does, from understanding and stewarding the ocean to educating young adults fresh out of high school.

GMGI can sequence whole genomes in-house thanks to Illumina's advances in sequencing technology, making it one of only a few organizations dedicated solely to marine genomics research. "GMGI is unique among marine research institutes in that we not only have access to the marine environment here on Gloucester's working waterfront, but we also have the tools and instruments we need to take the samples we collect from DNA extraction to sequencing and data analysis on our bioinformatic server," Jennifer Polinski, Senior Research Associate, explains.

This hands-on approach is paying dividends in job readiness and continuing education at the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy. Some students went on to earn undergraduate degrees, and one is on track to begin a PhD program. For many, the benefits extend far beyond a steady paycheck; they become a part of a thriving ecosystem of scientists producing meaningful work.

“They’re looking for something more than just a job,” said Doyle.

“One thing we’ve heard from students is that, for a lot of oncology research companies, everything starts with cell culture. They talk about how maybe their aunt passed away from cancer or one of their parents had cancer, and now they can have an impact in that area. For a student who was previously not on a pathway to college or a career, this is a big deal.”

In its efforts to inspire future leaders of the genome era, Illumina values collaborations with organizations such as GMGI. To learn more about how Illumina is empowering communities and working to provide five million learners with equitable access to genomics by 2030, click here.