WSU students create database to accelerate skin science

Ryan Driskell, Tommy Duong, and Sam Kindl -- in Driskell’s lab.
Ryan Driskell, right, head of WSU's Fibroblast and Skin Regeneration Laboratory, poses for a photo with undergraduate students Sam Kindl, center, and Tommy Duong, left, in Driskell’s lab at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman (photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren).

A new public database built from the ground up by Washington State University undergraduates looks to expedite scientific understanding of how skin heals.

The website — skinregeneration.org — was created for researchers but allows anyone to cross-compare information on more than 33,000 genes from different species as they relate to skin development, wound repair, and regeneration. Ultimately, it could help scientists reprogram adult skin for regeneration during wound healing and to inhibit the aging process. 

“Historically, one of the major mechanisms scientists communicated through was with physical papers published in journals. A new concept of how to output knowledge is to create webtools in association with online manuscripts. For example, webtools that allow for interacting with large genomic datasets that have so much knowledge that cannot fit into a single paper. You can just interact with the data on any device and at any time you want,” said Ryan Driskell, head of WSU’s Fibroblast and Skin Regeneration Laboratory.

The site wouldn’t be possible without the work of a pair of undergraduates — Tommy Duong and Sam Kindl — in Driskell’s lab.

“The fact that our data and the tools we’ve built can bring scientists together — it feels good,” Kindl said.

Kindl, a junior in genetics and cell biology at WSU Pullman, spent thousands of hours inside the Driskell Laboratory where he taught himself to code using YouTube videos and rebuilt an early version with added additional functionality and modernization.

Kindl manually input each individual gene dataset. The datasets contain small different colored dots that represent a calculated position within a graphical plot of cell types, which hint at gene function. 

Kindl called on his good friend from high school, Duong, who is pursuing an electrical engineering degree at WSU Pullman, to assist with the project.

“It’s actually a funny story,” Duong said. “He was sitting in my dorm room working on a project and I was like, ‘hey, what’s that?’ And he explained to me he just joined this lab and was assigned to this project. From there we chatted more about it, and he brought me into the lab — it started all from the floor of my dorm room.”

Duong was instrumental in creating the website’s search function for easy access for cross-comparing datasets or associated research publications, which are also available on the website.

“This is a first step at trying to make data more accessible and it’s a great experience to work on a project meant to benefit the scientific community,” Duong said.

Both Kindl and Duong said the site could be a model for other scientists.

“Our lab focuses on skin cells, but a site like this could be used for anything, infectious disease, cancer, other tissues — the sky’s the limit,” Kindl said.

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