Tintle helps teacher become scientist through grant

Ella de Jong—Staff Writer

Students scribble pencils onto paper and click away at calculators. They follow the white board marker as it squeaks and swipes across the board. Some steal glances at their phone, risking to lose their privilege of it. One desk functions as a pillow. Whispers of gossip bounce around the room and chairs squeal on the hard floor. Jason Westra, a teacher at Trinity Christian High School, finishes writing the mathematics problem on the board.  

This was a typical day for Westra, but not for long. 

“It was time to look for something else,” Westra said.

His mathematics, computer science, and physical education days are over.  

Westra always knew high school teaching was not his final destination, which is why for the past seven years he has been earning his masters under Dr. Nathan Tintle, a professor of statistics at Dordt University. Westra graduated from Dordt in 2008 and has been participating in Tintle’s summer undergraduate genomics training programs ever since.

It is statistics that catch the eye of Westra, but genomics seem to be following him. Westra first encountered learning more of genomics when he asked Tintle for a summer job. Seven years later, he found the opportunity to study in Tintle’s lab for a  year-long genomics research project.

“I was looking for a different pace in my life and this new opportunity came up,” Westra says.  

Tintle was awarded a $125,000 grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health, that supports Westra’s studies. Westra explains that he and Tintle found in the grant and thought it an appropriate fit for him. So they applied.  

Together they will work on real statistical problems while learning from genetics data. Their goal is to amass large bio banks, also known as electronic health records, where other researchers can analyze information in a simpler way than set out before. They can achieve this through the use of summary statistics rather than individual measure. By this process, other researchers can access the research and information found the electronic health records with greater ease.. This research provides an opportunity to use technology as much as they can while also prioritizing and maintaining respect of patient privacy during their research.  

In this  new location, pencils still scribble, and the white board marker still squeaks. Calculators still click. Chairs still squeal. The voices of students, though, are heard from far off. Here, phones are put to the side in order to encourage hard work and talking is heard between two highly educated men. Lab tables are glued to the floor and ready for operation. DNA samples sit on them ready for examination. Computer keyboards ache from the never-ending torrent of typing. These two men analyze genomics. Their research will play part in improving health and preventing diseases. 

Jason Westra is no longer a teacher. You can now call him a statistician and data scientist at Dordt University.  

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