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Reed’s Schaack Fulbright Winner Furthering Genomics Training and Research in East Africa

Reed College assistant professor of biology Sarah Schaack is a 2013-14 Fulbright Scholar working in East Africa through May.

Schaack is one of approximately 662 faculty traveling abroad through the Core U.S. Scholar Program, which is intended to increase understanding between the people of the United States and host countries. This opportunity was also made possible as part of Reed’s faculty sabbatical policy that grants leave to junior tenure-track faculty.

While in East Africa, Schaack will teach a series of workshops on how to use freely available genomic data and bioinformatic tools to conduct biological research. She will also coordinate a whole genome sequencing project with collaborators at various research institutions in Nairobi, Kenya. This project will focus on sequencing the pest (Busseola fusca) that is responsible for the annual destruction of large portions of the sub-Saharan Africa maize crop. Finally, she will consult and mentor students and researchers on ways to enrich their research by harnessing the vast quantities of data now available in the public domain.

Assisting Schaack with her endeavors are two Reed students, Caitlin Miller ’13 and Leah Cepko ’15, as well as, Maureiq Ojwang’, a previous workshop graduate. The workshops provide an introduction to bioinformatics and genomics to more than 130 participants in three countries. For more advanced students, the workshops provide an opportunity to solidify and expand their knowledge.

This is a return trip to East Africa for Schaack. “I fell in love with this part of the world when I was here in 1995 as an undergraduate,” said Schaack. The people were so warm and welcoming that she knew she wanted to return; she even learned to speak Swahili. “I feel so privileged to have this opportunity so early in my career. I would like to use it to build something lasting.”

Schaack has organized similar workshops in the US, including one conducted at Reed in 2013 that was open to participants from Portland-area institutions.  Her hope is to make both the local and international workshops a long-term series with far-reaching effects.  A participant in her most recent workshop in East Africa, Bidii Stephen Ngalah, plans to use the knowledge he gained to help others.  “By imparting such skills on me, it’s like you have educated thousands of students,” wrote Ngalah.

“It’s hard to predict individual outcomes, but I feel strongly about educating the next generation of biologists and collaborating internationally,” said Schaack about her work.

The Fulbright program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Recipients are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields. The program operates in more than 125 counties worldwide.