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Ready, Set, Commute: Jakobsson, Academic-cum-NIH Biofx Director

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As the incoming director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at NIGMS, Eric Jakobsson has had to make a few sacrifices. For one, he now has to spend his Tuesday mornings flying to Washington, DC, from Illinois, where he leads a research group in physiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his Saturday mornings flying back to the Midwest. For another, he has to complicate his relatively stress-free life as a tenured academic for the complex challenge of steering a new and somewhat roughly defined initiative through the halls of NIH.

But Jakobsson is trying his best not to see these changes as sacrifices. The commute to Washington puts him on a schedule on par with that of his wife, who travels to Springfield part of every week as a representative in the Illinois state legislature, and he’s happy to take on responsibilities in addition to his work as an academic. In fact, he plans to perform both duties for “as long as my strength holds out,” says the 64-year-old physicist-by-training.

When Jakobsson started his new job as director of CBCB (or CB2 as he calls it) in late May, his responsibilities hadn’t yet been written in stone. But he says his role will be to use the extramural program, with a budget of several million dollars per year, to support projects that supply computational tools and power for making sense of the overwhelming crush of data now coursing into databases from high-throughput biology experiments.

His two primary thrusts thus far, he says, involve coordinating a large nationwide distributed software engineering project to provide researchers with robust tools for managing and interpreting biological data, and to encourage programmers to make their bioinformatics programs interoperable, much the way today’s desktop programs like Microsoft Explorer and Outlook feed off of each other’s capabilities. “The missing piece is how to exploit all this computing power to deal with the enormous amounts of biomedical data, with the goal of improving people’s health,” he says.

In addition to running CB2, Jakobsson is also taking over the reins of the Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative from James Cassatt, who also served as interim director of CB2 during the two-year search for a permanent director. BISTY, as the initiative is affectionately known, is an effort to coordinate all the in-house biomedical computing development programs within NIH and other federal agencies.

Jakobsson says he spent his first few weeks on the job participating in a “road-mapping” project to outline the goals of his two initiatives, and is now waiting for Elias Zerhouni, the director of NIH, and other higher-ups to incorporate that into a mission statement. To make BISTY and CB2 successful on his budget of a few million dollars per year, Jakobsson says he’s relying primarily on the commitment of NIH to advancing the science. “I came into this position with a commitment from people across NIH who really want the institutes to move forward in this area,” he says.

— John S. MacNeil

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