Our SEPA project focuses on using GENI-ACT, the Genomics Education National Initiative – Annotation Collaboration Toolkit, a software tool that makes genome analysis accessible to educators and students. High school students are trained to use software tools to store, retrieve, organize and analyze biologic information.

When a pilot version of our GENI-ACT project was brought to Westfield High School in 2011 in Westfield, New York, a rural community in Chautauqua County, the project exposed students to careers they had never considered. At the time, Alec Freyn, a junior at Westfield High, wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue after high school. One option he was considering was sheep farming.

“The gene annotation project was the first opportunity to do anything scientific,” said Freyn, whose biotechnology teacher, Lon Knappenberger, was among the first teachers involved in our GENI-ACT pilot project that had high school students annotate a gene from a bacterium. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t been in the project.”

The experience inspired Alec to pursue science as a career. In 2016, he graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and molecular bioscience. He found that the skills he learned in our project could be applied to his college coursework and research.

“The gene annotation I did in high school provided me with practical experience that helped with my labs,” he said. Since then, he has been involved in research projects including one on the developmental biology of sea urchins and another at the University of Giessen in Germany, where he conducted biochemistry and virology research to investigate the response of the expression of a gene to influenza virus infection.

When asked what advice he would give to other GENI-ACT project students, he said, “Follow what you enjoy, but also expect to fail because you should be failing nine times out of 10 in science in order to know you are asking a good question.”

Freyn is currently attending the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and pursuing a doctorate in biomedical sciences.