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Blog / 03.9.15

Learning from Ebola

Sabeti Lab, Somerville High School
By Paul Goldsmith
In the fall of 2014, Ebola Zaire did for viral hemorrhagic fever what Jaws did for sharks in the summer of ‘75. The first Ebola diagnosis (and later death) on U.S. soil touched off a nationwide panic. Suddenly, Ebola was everywhere—dominating headlines, trending on social media, fueling the 24-hour...

In the fall of 2014, Ebola Zaire did for viral hemorrhagic fever what Jaws did for sharks in the summer of ‘75. The first Ebola diagnosis (and later death) on U.S. soil touched off a nationwide panic. Suddenly, Ebola was everywhere—dominating headlines, trending on social media, fueling the 24-hour news cycle. For a time, the fear and misinformation fueling the hysteria threatened to undermine relief efforts and overshadow the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. But, as Broadie Aaron Lin discovered on a recent visit to Somerville High School, that hysteria also has a small silver lining. 

“Ebola is an attention grabber,” said Lin, a grad student in the Sabeti Lab. “The students took an immediate interest. They’d seen it in the news. They had questions. They really got into it.”

Lin was on hand to pilot Disease Detectives – Introduction to Sequence Analysis, a new learning module developed by the Sabeti Lab in collaboration with the Broad’s office of Education and Outreach. The module, designed to replicate the Sabeti Lab’s initial genomic analysis, challenges students to examine Ebola sequences obtained from patients in Sierra Leone and Guinea during the 2014 outbreak.

Sabeti Lab computational biologist Danny Park was the brains behind the idea. In early summer of 2014, Broad education and outreach intern Justine Lassar approached Park looking for potential activities for the high school students participating in the Broad Summer Scholars Program. At the time, Park and his colleagues had just begun sequencing their first batch of Ebola samples.

“Our initial analysis wasn’t computational,” said Park. “It was mostly intuition. We just stared at the sequences, looking for patterns.” In the module—developed by Park, Lin, Shirlee Wohl and Rachel Sealfon in the Sabeti Lab—the students are asked to analyze the same initial 15 sequences, group them by similarities, and then construct a narrative of the transmission of the virus.

“By having the students replicate what the lab did last summer, they are learning about mutations and how scientists use information about mutations to track the geographic spread of diseases like Ebola,” said Education and Outreach coordinator Rachel Gesserman. The module also teaches the importance of sequence analysis, and its role in diagnostics and therapeutics.

“The key is that we built our lesson on a relevant, real world event,” said Lin. “Science is one of the best ways for engaging students in current events. It’s all around us. You just have to look.” 

Gesserman, Park, and the rest of the Education and Outreach team are now working to refine the module for a full roll out this summer. The module is also being adapted by AAAS as an inquiry based activity to support an upcoming annotated edition of the Sabeti Lab’s September 2014 Science paper “Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak." 

“By creating and supporting partnerships between Broad scientists and schools, we are able to give students authentic scientific experiences using real data,” said Vivian Siegel, Broad director of education and outreach. 

If you think your research could provide the basis for a learning module, we encourage you to contact Vivian Siegel in the office of Education and Outreach.