University of Iowa Receives $598,500 NIH Bioinformatics Training Grant

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

University of Iowa News Release

The University of Iowa has received a $598,500, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will enable doctoral students in 22 existing UI doctoral programs to receive an interdisciplinary certificate in bioinformatics along with a traditional disciplinary doctoral degree, beginning with the fall semester of 2009.

A leading role in obtaining the grant was played by the department of biomedical engineering and the UI Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB).

The purpose of the NIH training grant program, called "Bioinformatics Training in the Life Sciences and Biomedicine," is to provide life sciences graduates with the skills of biomedical problem solving using modern computational methods, said Tom Casavant (left), professor of electrical/computer and biomedical engineering, CBCB director, and principal investigator for the grant.

"No field has been impacted more by advances in micro-chip manufacturing processes, high-performance computing and advanced networking technology than bio-medicine and the basic life sciences over the past two decades," said Casavant, who also holds the Roy J. Carver, Jr. Chair in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.

Many students in the life sciences and biomedicine have had limited exposure to quantitative fields such as advanced statistics and mathematics or computer science and engineering. Similarly, many students in engineering, math and computer science have traditionally had little exposure to training in the life sciences. Together, the advanced development of these quantitative fields in applied settings is called 'informatics.' When applied to basic life sciences or biomedicine, the field is known as 'bioinformatics.'

"This new graduate program answers the need for formal training for students by emphasizing both bioscience and informatics, while developing the skills to effectively apply these quantitative methods in novel ways to problems such as human genetic disease diagnosis and treatment," he said.

Casavant added that students who enter the program will have backgrounds ranging from computer engineering to biology and will receive doctoral degrees in an equally diverse array of disciplines. In addition, the students will receive a core of bioinformatic coursework and seminars while being co-advised by mentors spanning informatics and the biosciences. Job opportunities for these highly sought graduates range from the pharmaceutical industries, agricultural research and biomedical research.

In this program, students will work alongside researchers from the colleges of engineering, medicine, liberal arts and sciences, public health, business, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing and the graduate college. They will join CBCB researchers who are learning about the molecular and genetic bases of a variety of diseases, including blinding eye diseases.

Students who choose to participate in the program will pursue, for example, a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering while taking a companion curricular and experiential program in bioinformatics. Upon completion of the coursework and at graduation, they would receive the certificate along with their graduate degree diploma.

In some ways, the program is similar to the existing UI Technological Entrepreneurship Certificate, earned in conjunction with an engineering degree and established in 1996 by the college of engineering and the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. The nationally recognized program was the first of its kind at any U.S. engineering college and enables students to study the entrepreneurial process as it relates to technology.

In addition to the normal coursework and thesis requirements of the students' respective disciplinary doctoral programs, the students will complete an average of 18 additional hours of coursework in bioinformatics, informatics or bioscience, depending on prior studies. The most novel aspect of this program is that is does not create yet another isolated disciplinary doctoral program. The heart of bioinformatics is interdisciplinary collaboration.

"At the core of this program is the philosophy that students must become bioinformaticians in a specific applied setting," Casavant said. "Thus, students will encounter didactic training, but also work with cooperating thesis advisors from different fields to develop a coherent research program that spans the two disciplines. Very few programs exist that function in this decentralized and intentionally interdisciplinary manner."

The 22 doctoral degree programs eligible to participate in the program are: applied mathematical and computational sciences, anatomy and cell biology, biochemistry, biological sciences, biomedical engineering, biostatistics, chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, genetics, internal medicine, library and information science, mathematics, medicine, microbiology, neurology, ophthalmology, pediatrics, pharmaceutics, physiology and biophysics, and statistics.

The CBCB is a high-performance computational and informational resource uniquely designed to help researchers learn about the molecular and genetic bases of human disease. The CBCB is jointly administered by the UI College of Engineering and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu