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UM Institute for Genome Sciences Promotes Two Faculty Members to New Associate Director Positions

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine has appointed two faculty members to newly-created management positions, in which they will take leadership roles in expanding collaborations across the UM Baltimore campus, mentoring institute faculty, and developing graduate and medical curricula in their fields.

Jacques Ravel has been named associate director, genomics; while Owen White has been named associate director, bioinformatics. Both will work with institute Director Claire Fraser-Liggett in strategic planning of future research direction and growth — as well as retain their faculty positions at UMSOM, where Ravel is an associate professor in microbiology and immunology, and White is professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine.

The new positions were created following the departure of Vish Nene, who served as associate director for all of UM Institute for Genome Sciences before joining the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya as director of its biotechnology research theme last year.

Lori McKay, senior administrator for UM Institute for Genome Sciences, told GenomeWeb Daily News the institute originally sought someone for Nene's position before deciding instead to create two new associate director positions, each overseeing a key research focus of the institute, because the complexity of research and scope of its grants had expanded.

"In conjunction with the fact that we've been growing by leaps and bounds, we decided we would tap two people internally to do what used to be done by one person, with the hopes that they could both focus on these concentrated areas," McKay said. "We think this is a much better route to go."

McKay said she cannot answer definitively whether the institute will someday create additional associate director positions for other research areas, "but I can say that for the next couple of years, no. I think we'd have to grow a little bit more beyond this to reach that platform where we would need another associate director," McKay added.

The Baltimore-based UM Institute for Genome Sciences has a total of 20 faculty members, and another approximately 95 support employees. About two-thirds of the faculty focuses on research, and the other third on informatics — though that ratio is expected to change as the institute undertakes more interdisciplinary research, McKay said.

The institute was launched in 2007 and focuses on interdisciplinary genomics and bioinformatics research.

Ravel will oversee research in metagenomics and genomics laboratories at the institute. He has expertise in microbial forensics, and is also a lead investigator with the NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project. During the current fiscal year, Ravel has more than $4.8 million in grant funding toward research at UM Institute for Genome Sciences.

"IGS will continue to work with the School of Medicine and the other professional schools in Baltimore, to move closer to a genomic-based medicine that is more personalized. The Human Microbiome is just one component of this program, often ignored in personalized medicine programs," Ravel told GWDN.

Ravel started working with Fraser-Liggett more than a decade ago, when she was director of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., one of three organizations that merged in 2006 to form the J. Craig Venter Institute. He began microbiology studies at France's Université Henri Ponicaré, and completed a doctorate in microbial ecology from the University of Maryland, College Park.

White will oversee annotation work for researchers from the UMB campus and their collaborators worldwide in his new position. Speaking with GWDN sister publication BioInform, he noted that some 15 funded research collaborations existed at last count between institute researchers and their partners throughout the rest of UMB.

"A strategic objective would be to treble that every year," White said. "We are a genome center, but at this point in the field, it's a good idea for places like genome centers to not operate as independently as they have in the past. It's good to have them coupled to application areas, where in this case an application area is health and medicine."

Over time, as the ability of UM Institute for Genome Sciences to generate more sequencing data expands, "the focus of attention is going to transfer more toward the ability to make use of that data," said White. "That's the development area that we see in the future."

White and his department are involved in large-scale annotation, ontology development, and data sharing. During the current fiscal year, he has more than $4.1 million in grant funding toward research at the institute.

White completed a doctorate in molecular biology from New Mexico State University, and began working with Fraser-Leggett more than 16 years ago at TIGR. He has been selected by NIH as lead scientist for HMP's Data Analysis and Coordination Center, the project's central data repository.

"The new position is a chess move toward just making sure that we have a brain trust for strategic development at IGS. It's good for the organization," White said.

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