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Doing Big Science at a Small School With the Joshua Tree Genome Project

The Joshua Tree Genome project is unusual in a lot of ways. It’s unusual partly because it focuses on such a bizarre and fascinating plant that has a singularly peculiar pollination system. However, it is also unusual because of the research team we’ve assembled. An important part of our team is a group of college students at Willamette University.

Willamette is a small liberal arts college located in Salem, Oregon. There are fewer than 2000 students at Willamette, and its science departments serve only undergraduates: there are no Ph.D. or Master’s students. Willamette is known for excellence in teaching and learning, but it’s not a research-intensive school like the University of California Berkeley or the University of Michigan.

In contrast, a genome project for an organism like Joshua tree – which has a very large genome (3 billion bases) – is a major research undertaking. A genome project is practically the definition of ‘big science.’ When scientists first set out to sequence the human genome, it was a $3 billion project, and it took the US Department of Energy nearly ten years to complete it.

So what is a tiny school like Willamette doing trying to start a genome project?