Expedition PAG: A Small College Student’s Dive into Genomic Insights by Abigail O’Meara

I am truly grateful for the experience of attending the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG) in San Diego, CA this week. As a senior nearing the completion of my Bachelor’s degree at Smith College in Northampton, MA, with a double major in Statistics and Environmental Science & Policy, the opportunity was particularly significant. My attendance at the conference was made possible through the NSF undergraduate travel grant program and the support of my college, adding an extra layer of appreciation for the chance to attend and present.

I arrived in San Diego on Friday, January 12th, 2024, eager and ready to make the most of this opportunity. Over the six days of the conference, I participated in a total of 76 talks, a decision I made beforehand in order to absorb as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible. The range of topics covered in these talks was diverse, spanning workshops and sessions conducted by established researchers such as my PI, Dr. Doreen Ware, to presentations by graduate and postdoc students, each contributing their insights to the scientific community. The graduate and postdoc sessions were particularly interesting to me as I hope that is a step for me in the near future. The workshops I attended covered topics such as statistical and comparative genomics, advanced computational methods, systems biology, machine learning, aquaculture, engineering nitrogen use efficiency, plant molecular breeding, crop agricultural productivity, plant reproductive genomics, abiotic stress, and the list could go on.

One of the highlights of my conference experience was the opportunity to present a part of my research from the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). The Ware Lab at CSHL not only granted me the chance to participate in their lab during the summer but also supported me in presenting my findings at PAG in the form of a poster and presentation. This experience started with the NSF awarding a select group of 20 students, including myself, the chance to engage in hands-on lab experience, enhance presentation skills, attend a lecture seminar series, and learn in a laboratory setting at the renowned CSHL. The subsequent invitation from the Ware Lab to continue within their research community and present at PAG was a testament to the incredibly transformative impact of this experience.

As a student from a small primarily undergraduate college, the opportunities afforded to me have been limited compared to those in larger institutions with greater research funding. Working with the Ware Lab and attending the PAG conference has been a truly life-changing experience. It’s noteworthy that, among the attendees, I believe I was one of the few undergraduates who not only had the privilege to be present at the conference but also shared a presentation and presented a poster—an honor that further highlighted the significance of this experience. 

My presentation was part of the ‘Gramene: Unifying Comparative Genomics and Pathway Resources for Plant Communities’ workshop (https://www.gramene.org). Gramene, developed by members of the Ware Lab along with many other collaborators, played a crucial role in my research experience this summer. I presented a segment of my summer project titled ‘Sorghum eFP Browser to View Gene Expression Anatomograms in Gramene,’ which delved into gene expression data in the context of comparative genomics and the development and utilization of these resources. I focused most of my talk around the Gramene eFP Browser tool, highlighting its use in interpreting gene expression data through pictographic representations of experimental samples. I also discussed my contribution to this by creating some of these eFP Browser Maps during my REU at CSHL this past summer. In specifying a gene of interest, researchers can use this resource to explore both narrow and wide expression patterns among various orthologs. The other focus in my talk was discussing the gene expression panels in Gramene and how to utilize them for expression views on paralogs and genes expressed in its pathway along with where the gene of interest is expressed. My presentation highlighted the significant contributions of Gramene, developed by the Ware Lab and collaborators, in advancing our understanding of gene expression patterns and fostering innovative approaches in the field of comparative genomics.

The entire process leading up to the conference was an incredible learning opportunity. From creating a poster and refining a presentation to collaborating with Ware Lab members and preparing for public speaking, every step contributed to my growth as a researcher and a strong science communicator.

Along with the workshops, the conference provided a platform to explore over 800 posters, offering a unique chance to engage with diverse research projects from labs around the world. Additionally, the spare time between sessions allowed for valuable networking opportunities and discussions with representatives from industry exhibits. This aspect not only enhanced my understanding of the research landscape but also shed light on how different industry leaders and start-ups actively support and contribute to scientific advancements. I also had the privilege of attending various dinners and events almost every night of the conference with different labs and industries, contributing to the networking opportunities of this conference. 

In retrospect, attending the PAG conference was not just an academic event for me but a transformative experience that has significantly shaped my perspective and aspirations in the field of genomics and environmental science. I’m forever grateful to Doreen Ware and CSHL for the opportunity.