The bioinformatics education boom that began in the late 1990s is tapering off a bit, according to BioInform’s third annual survey of US university degree programs. Only three of the 64 programs included in this year’s listing began accepting students in 2003 — compared to 14 in 2002 and 17 in 2001.
But that hasn’t slowed the growth of graduates exiting the nation’s universities with degrees in bioinformatics or computational biology. In 2003, at least 201 students completed BS-, MS-, or PhD-level training in such programs, compared to 181 in 2002, and 53 in 2001. And that number is likely to explode over the next several years, even if the total number of degree programs remains flat, because nearly half of the programs surveyed this year were too new to report any graduating students.
Of the 64 universities offering formal bioinformatics or computational biology degrees, 16 offer BS programs, 44 offer MS programs, and 46 offer PhD programs. Seven schools (Carnegie Mellon, Drexel University, Florida State University, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Wright State University) offer all three degree levels, up from five last year.
In 2003, at least 49 BS, 117 MS, and 35 PhDs were awarded in bioinformatics or computational biology; up from 28 BS, 115 MS, and 38 PhDs in 2002 and 12 BS, 26 MS, and 15 PhDs in 2001. Some programs did not provide data for their 2003 graduates, so the total numbers are likely higher than indicated by the survey.
In line with the downturn in the bioinformatics job market, the survey data on student placements — which ranged from highly accurate breakdowns to confessed wild guesses — indicates that the proportion of students remaining in the nonprofit sector is increasing, from approximately 55 percent of total students in 2002 to 65 percent this year.
Gender distribution — again, assessed with a hefty pinch of guesstimation — remained flat between 2002 and 2003. Overall, roughly 60 percent of total students going for their bioinformatics degree are male.
Degree offerings range from dedicated bioinformatics programs to specialized tracks within computer science or biology departments to creatively named programs that highlight the multidisciplinary nature of the field — such as Florida State University’s “biomedical mathematics” degree and Rutgers’ PhD in “quantitative biology.”
In response to the rapid evolution of bioinformatics, many respondents said they planned to modify or expand their curricula for the upcoming year, with courses in statistics, microarray analysis, and mathematical modeling among the most cited. Most survey participants who planned changes for the upcoming year said they also plan to add new faculty. Participating faculty for the programs included in the 2003 survey ranged from two to 100, and the vast majority noted that their faculty is drawn from multiple departments. Biology, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, biomedical engineering, and statistics were the most common participating disciplines.
It’s likely that many of the respondents would agree with Inge Wefes, co-director of the bioinformatics program at the University of South Florida, who describes the USF program as “a work in progress.” Providing students with the right mix of biological knowledge and programming skills remains a challenge for universities, and training them to solve research problems that may not appear for another five to 10 years is even more difficult. Most program directors indicated that they plan to keep pace by staying flexible. “We plan to be open for constant improvements including additions and adjustments that are requested by students, different academic units, and industry partners,” Wefes says.
A version of this article, along with a chart listing bioinformatics degree programs, appeared in the August 11 issue of BioInform.
Bernadette Toner is editor of BioInform, a weekly newsletter from GenomeWeb at www. bioinform.com. She can be reached at btoner @genomeweb.com.