St. Francis bio students earn top scores in online competitions

When is a game not just a game?

St. Francis College students are finding out that it’s when winning could lead to amazing medical breakthroughs.

Professor Alison Dell introduced her Molecular Biology Class to the online, international competition PHYLO. The goal of the game is to figure out ways to match sets of DNA to help look for ways to identify and further genetic disease research. (Watch the SFCTV Video)

“We’ve learned that computers are pretty bad at recognizing DNA similarity,” said Professor Dell. “Humans are much better at seeing patterns.”

By recognizing the patterns, scientists can then focus on specific DNA and look for ways to cure human diseases including heart disease, neurodegeneration and obesity

The students were originally assigned the task as a way to earn extra credit on an exam but competition between the students led to some intense time spent on Phylo. They posted about their work on social media and were even in contact via Twitter with a co-founder of Phylo, Jérôme Waldispühl of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

“I enjoyed helping them to make this experience as smooth as possible,” wrote Waldispühl.  “I have been really impressed by the energy they put in this competition.”

During the final week of the competition, Professor Dell’s students held the top seven places against players and researchers from around the world. And one student, Alyssa Casciorizzo ’14 climbed all the way up to tenth, all–time, worldwide.

“We didn’t think it would turn out like this, we all got really competitive especially when we stared getting closer to each other in scores,” said Alyssa, who currently works in a doctor’s office, volunteers at Maimonides Medical Center and wants to be a nurse practitioner.

In all, more than 190,000 puzzles have been solved using Phylo. That puts Alyssa atop tens of thousands of other players.

Students are now focusing their energy on another online game, EteRNA, which challenges players to make new RNA molecules for real-life synthesis in the lab.