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Stanford Launches Computational Genomics Center

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Stanford University has launched a new genomics research center that will foster collaboration across its seven schools and harness new computational technologies, it said today.

The Stanford Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics, headed by the university's School of Medicine and School of Humanities and Sciences, has been authorized for five years of funding, the university said.

Created with the goal of spurring and nurturing cross-cutting research collaborations, the new center will be open to all university faculty and labs. It will provide support for small project grants and computational genomics analysis services for member labs, faculty, students, and staff.

The center also will consult with academic institutions, industry, government, and research organizations on collaborations, will support graduate and postdoctoral students, and in its first year will launch public outreach programs in three areas – genomics and social systems, medical genomics, and agricultural, ecological, and environmental genomics. The center's focus, regardless of the particulars of the project at hand, will be on using expertise and methods for sorting through, integrating, and analyzing large-scale data sets.

Stanford Professor Carlos Bustamante, who also is one of the center's two founding directors, told GenomeWeb Daily News today that the university has not yet set the funding amount for the center but has committed to five years and will be "sufficient to catalyze all of the programs that we want to get started." Ultimately, the center will seek funding from beyond the university, he noted.

"The incredible thing about a place like Stanford is that we've got the medical school co-located with the main campus, the traditional arts and sciences and humanities programs, and an exceptional engineering school, so we really are looking to create interdisciplinary programs that cut across traditional academic boundaries," Bustamante said.

He explained that the new center will pursue and support projects that cut a broad swath across Stanford's academic research areas, including paleo-anthropology, population genetics, agriculture, climate science, and biomedicine, as well as pursue bioethical questions that have arisen alongside human genomic science.

For example, Bustamante said, the research may involve integrating genetics and history studies.

"How can we use technologies from genomics to improve our understanding of the great human diaspora? That's an area that [Founding Director and Stanford Biology Professor] Mark Feldman and I have been interested in for years.

"But now we can begin to do things that are cross-cutting in, say, funding archaeology students that want to study ancient DNA, or beginning to do projects that have to do with race, genetics, and ethnicity," he said. "Now we can fund graduate students and post-docs to really work on interdisciplinary issues that are very hard to fund through traditional mechanisms."

Bustamante pointed out that Stanford has "a tremendous amount of expertise in machine learning and statistical learning," and the center will try to bring people and projects together with clinicians who are pursuing cutting-edge projects in a wide array of fields, such as cancer genomics.

"Traditionally, these people would know about each other but they haven't necessarily had the mechanisms to initiative [joint] pilot projects and collaborations," Bustamante said, and that is where the new center might fit in.

One of the key aims of the center also is to forge collaborations between biomedical researchers with those in the humanities and social sciences.

For example, one of the center's executive committee members, Stanford Biology Professor Noah Rosenberg, is co-directing a program focused on Jewish genetics and Jewish history. Another executive member, Professor Dmitri Petrov, will head a year-long project focused on ecological genetics.

Bustamante, who previously was a researcher at Cornell University, said he expects that the center will branch out into agricultural genomics as well.

"Genomics is transforming agriculture. It is probably where genomics is having some of its biggest impacts," he said.

Aside from the wide range of research areas that the new center may support, it will have one core mission, Bustamante told GWDN.

"It really is, first and foremost, a center focused on computational analysis, both in terms of developing methods and computing on big data. That is a particular expertise of those of us involved in launching the center."