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Core labs: Bioinformatics core leaders of the world, unite!

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At the Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology meeting in Glasgow this August, some 30 or 40 people gathered at one of the birds-of-a-feather lunches. They’re the bioinformatics core leaders, and they’ve been getting together at these once-a-year sessions since 2002 — so they’re still ironing out the kinks and figuring out the best way to make use of the group.

Currently coordinated by Fran Lewitter, director of bioinformatics and research computing at the Whitehead Institute, the 70-odd members of the group communicate mainly through an informal mailing list. Traffic has been increasing on it, and Lewitter hopes new members will help keep the virtual group active. Most people who write to the mailing list are looking for advice about particular software, she adds, or seeking an informatics recommendation to solve a new scientific problem.

At present, much of the function seems to be as a support group for harried bioinformatics core leaders. The major issues people bring up at meetings, Lewitter says, tend to revolve around funding — does money come from investigators’ grants? A core lab grant? — and how best to train biologists to use software tools. Another favorite topic is perception of the core, she says. “Sometimes the word ‘core’ smacks of support and not anything but support.” Many core labs, like the one Lewitter leads at Whitehead, advance their reputations and members’ careers by collaborating with scientists in need of informatics expertise, rather than just providing a hands-off service. “People in my group are co-authors on papers,” Lewitter says. “It raises the level of what a core does if you have a group of people who are doing this … and really helping the science move along.”

A key challenge for core leaders is to stay “ahead of the game,” she adds. “The scientists are always coming with new ideas. You have to be ready for change all the time because science is changing so quickly.”

With such a large group of the head bioinformatic decision-makers at prestigious public-sector institutions, it’s not hard to imagine the group levying serious buying power with vendors. That hasn’t been discussed by the members yet, Lewitter says, but “that is a possibility” down the road.

For now, her main goal is to stir up enthusiasm about the group to get it going all year long. “We’re investigating ways to interact more than once a year,” she says. “The biggest problem is getting people moving once you get back to your own home [from the conference] … but I’m going to try to motivate people to do that.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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