Genome Hackers camp adapts to pandemic

Young women enjoy learning to apply computer sciences to biology at virtual camp.

Media Contact: Leila Gray, 206.475.9809,

A half-day summer camp underway for young women who love biology is engaging them in the fun of computer coding and programming.  The Genome Hackers half-day weeklong camp is in its fourth year.  This year, because of the pandemic, the sessions have gone virtual.

Graduate students in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle started the camp in 2017 for their aspiring protégés.   The graduate students were concerned that, while half of the life sciences majors in college are women, only one-fifth of computer sciences majors are female. 

They realized that, increasingly, coding and other computational expertise are vital in many fields of biology and biotechnology, ranging from studying marine life, or exploring microbes on our planet and possibly others, to understanding how genes operate, and myriad other topics.

“That is why we are excited to bring more of a biological aspect to teaching women how to code,” the program leaders noted. 

Some of the students were particularly enthralled about using computer coding to work on the biological codes, carried in genes, that govern living structures and functions.

Said one student,  “I was really proud of myself for figuring out how to code DNA strand into RNA.”

At present, wrote Cindy Yeh, a graduate student in Maitreya Dunham’s evolutionary genetics lab, only 26 percent of the computing professional workforce are female, and of these, only 10 percent are women of color. For Yeh, learning coding became more intuitive when she was able to apply it to a biological concept.

This inspired Yeh and her fellow graduate student Andria Ellis, who is training in  Cole Trapnell’s cell gene regulators lab, create a new science camp for high school girls.  It would have lessons and projects that integrated biology and computer science, and that offered opportunities unavailable elsewhere to make computing topics less abstract and intimidating. They also wanted the campers to witness real-world application of computer science to genomics.  A team of graduate student students serves as teachers and camp counselors.

Two first year graduate students, Maddy Duran from Cole Trapnell's lab, and Sophie Moggridge, Judit Villén's lab in proteomics and cell signaling, and a senior UW undergraduate in informatics, Phung Phu, were also leaders in implementing and running the virtual program this year.

The camp had been offered in-person for $50 in previous years, with scholarships available, but because of the pandemic the fee was waived for all students admitted to the program.  

The camp is funded through a grant from the National Center for Women in Information Technologies.  Genome Hackers has become a model for similar camps at a couple of other universities and biotech companies. The founders hope to eventually package a modified version of the curriculum for high school biology teachers or graduate students to use on their own with their students.

Camp will wrap up Friday, Aug. 21, with a Zoom finale where participants will present some of their projects to UW faculty members, graduate students and their family and friends.

[Note to reporters and editors:  You are invited to attend the Zoom finale of the Genome Hackers camp Friday, Aug. 21.  It is not open to the public. Please contact UW Medicine at for the sign in information and time.  Individual interviews can also be scheduled.]

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