35th Anniversary Spotlight: USF Genomics Program serves as ‘building block’ for public health breakthroughs

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Since its inception in 2018, the USF Genomics Program has been an interdisciplinary program leveraging the diversity of USF’s faculty expertise to integrate genomic approaches to understanding global health issues.

The USF Genomics Program is a multi-college program directed by Dr. John Adams, distinguished university professor, that operates through the USF College of Public Health’s Global and Planetary Health strategic area. It includes faculty from the COPH, Morsani College of Medicine, College of Nursing, College of Arts and Sciences and College of Marine Science.

Genomics—the study of the structure and function of an organism’s DNA—­­is something Dr. Jenna Oberstaller, the interdisciplinary sciences liaison for the program and USF COPH research associate, says stands at the base of public health breakthroughs.

Close up of DNA. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

“The grand vision behind USF Genomics was to be a unifying and broadly interdisciplinary program; a highly collaborative community strengthened by leveraging our diverse expertise and resources into building a program that would attract more talent, facilitate collaboration, invest in cutting-edge technologies, and train the next generation of Omics researchers and leaders,” she said.

According to Oberstaller, prior to the program’s foundation, individual labs across USF, including medicine, nursing, marine science and arts and sciences, were well-established to perform omics research.

“But, many were toiling in isolation, or with omics data-collection and analysis outsourced to external companies or collaborators,” she said. “Though USF had the talents, we did not necessarily have the organization to facilitate collaborations at a scale to satisfy need.”

But, how do genomics and public health go hand-in-hand?

“Issues of public health are often complex problems resulting from an interplay of contributing factors,” Oberstaller said. “We have researchers focusing on using Omics data to answer questions all along the spectrum of ‘basic’ science—the building blocks for many public-health and biomedical breakthroughs—directly to translational science that informs clinical treatments or interventions, for both human and planetary health.”

The program approaches public-health complexities from many different angles, with current research focusing on topics ranging from personal genetics and the community of micro-organisms in the gut to evolutionary adaptations enabling parasites or even cancers to resist treatment; to environmental changes extending the range of disease-carrying mosquitos, or allowing invasive species or diseases to threaten food-sources; to the effects of light-pollution on birds that lengthens the window they can transmit human diseases, and beyond.

“Interdisciplinary, collaborative efforts—united by the goal of harnessing the immense power of omics research—empower USF to contribute innovative solutions to these complex problems of health and ecology,” Oberstaller said.

Dr. Jenna Oberstaller (Photo courtesy of USF COPH)

Currently there are 31 faculty members spanning a number of USF colleges in the program.

“We welcome any USF faculty having extramurally-funded omics research-projects to be an official part of the program,” Oberstaller said.  

According to Oberstaller, in its short time of existence, the program has managed to:

  • Establish the USF Genomics facility “training core,” which houses state-of-the-art sequencing-technology, including single-cell sequencing
  • Offer subsidized workshops for both laboratory and computational data-analysis training for RNA sequencing, as well as microbiome data-analysis training
  • Invest in state-of-the-art high-performance computing hardware, in cooperation with USF Research Computing, that is HIPAA-compliant to allow secure storage and analysis of sensitive, human-subjects genomic data
  • Establish the USF Genomics Omics Hub computational and laboratory-advisory group
  • Engage in omics consulting, training-resources, and grant-application support
  • Establish a master’s graduate degree program
  • Establish graduate Genomics Program fellowships

To learn more about the USF Genomics Program, including research and degree programs, visit the program’s website.

The USF Genomics Fall Symposium will be held Nov. 15 at the USF Global Health and Infectious Disease Research Center. The event will feature external speakers, as well as highlight current USF Genomics faculty research. To learn more about the event, or to register, visit the event listing.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health