E&H Hosts First Virtual Lyceum Event

Ryleigh Clukey, Website Editor/Copyeditor

On Tuesday, Aug. 24th, Emory & Henry College hosted its first virtual Lyceum event, “How Bioinformatics Traced COVID-19,” hosted by guest speaker, Rebekah Rogers. Rogers has her doctorate in Biology and is an assistant professor of bioinformatics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

Rogers opened her presentation with a detailed explanation of phylogenetics, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster as “based on natural evolutionary relationships,” and phylogenetic trees, which trace those relationships. With a basic understanding established, she then went on to detail how her friend, Trevor Bedford, who has his doctorate in biology and is an affiliate associate professor of both epidemiology and genome sciences at the University of Washington, helped to track COVID-19 through its early stages.

In January of this year, Bedford received sequences of the virus from Wuhan, Beijing, and Shanghai, allowing him to assess the different strains, the spread, and impact of the virus. On Jan. 25, Rogers received an email from Bedford saying that the coronavirus looked “worse than the flu. Worst-case scenario would be like the Spanish flu.”

Through phylogenetics, Bedford and his team were able to track how the virus was spreading, discovering that more Americans were being infected with the coronavirus through contact in Europe, as opposed to Asia. Bedford’s team was also the first to find evidence of community spread in the Washington state area. 

Rogers wrapped up her discussion saying “None of this [tracking the virus and its spread] would have happened so quickly if it weren’t for the fact that these scientists had spent decades developing the expertise for this problem no one knew was coming. Basic science pays off.”

Dr. Rebekah Rogers, courtesy of the UNC Charlotte website.

Students seemed to really enjoy the seminar, many of them staying after it ended to ask questions of their own and applaud Rogers. 

Bedford is one of the lead scientists studying the phylogenetics of influenza; he is among those consulted when the Center for Disease Control determines which flu strains to vaccinate against each year. During the Ebola outbreak, which began in late December of 2013, Bedford was called to help track the various strains of that, as well. 

E&H will hold more virtual events  in the future. Students can keep track of these events by visiting the Lyceums section in their Moodle portals.