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Biomedicine, Genomics Priorities at New UVA School of Data Science

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CHICAGO (GenomeWeb) — The University of Virginia last week unveiled plans to create an entirely new school focused on data science, courtesy of the largest private gift in the venerable university's 200-year history. While the planned UVA School of Data Science will have a broad, interdisciplinary mission, expect genomics and other bioinformatics endeavors to play a large role, since the school will be headed by a veteran systems pharmacologist and computational biologist.

UVA is receiving a $120 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based organization backed by UVA alumni Jaffray and Merrill Woodriff. Jaffray Woodriff is CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, a local private investment firm.

With matching funds from the university itself, the total investment in the School of Data Science will come to about $200 million, according to Philip Bourne, director of UVA's current Data Science Institute, who also will serve as acting dean of the new school. The Data Science Institute, itself established by a $10 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation, will be folded into the School of Data Science.

Prior to landing at UVA in 2017, Bourne was the first permanent associate director for data science at the National Institutes of Health, where he led the Big Data to Knowledge program. He also cofounded and served for seven years as editor in chief of Plos Computational Biology.

The largest chunk of the $200 million is going to endow faculty positions and student and postdoctoral fellowships, Bourne said, with operating funds coming from tuition payments and interest on the endowment. UVA already has undergraduate and master's programs in data science, and a PhD program is in planning stages.

The university also will spend $43 million on a new building to house the proposed School of Data Science, which can't be officially established without approval from Virginia's State Council of Higher Education.

"We anticipate making submissions to the state in middle to late March," Bourne said. Now, school planners are getting input from UVA's Faculty Senate and other university advisors.

Bourne estimated that perhaps a quarter of the school's resources will be dedicated to biomedical data sciences. "That's to be determined, but that's the current [plan]," he said.

"How much, what percentage of our assets and resources go into biomedicine, I think that's an open question. It's clearly an area we have strength in. We're undoubtedly going to build that out," Bourne said.

What is certain is that UVA last year became an NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards recipient, based on the school's two-year-old Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, which involves the Data Science Institute.

UVA already has strong programs in neurodegenerative disease, systems biology, and computational biology. "We're starting to move into effective use of the electronic health record, tying genotype to phenotype," Bourne said.

The university also has a comprehensive research and education partnership with Inova Health System that is aimed at advancing precision medicine. UVA and the Washington-area health system are developing the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Institute, to be located at the Inova Center for Personalized Health, now under construction in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The Inova partnership represents a collaboration with the private sector, which Bourne said would be an important component of the School of Data Science. Notably, researchers from various private entities will be "embedded" in the school, whether they work on the Charlottesville campus or remotely.

"We expect to have researchers from the private sector working in the new school with our students and faculty," Bourne said. "It's a direct conduit for our students to get jobs with these companies [and] it allows us to work on real-world problems. It seems like a win-win situation."

Bourne said that the Data Science Institute already was working on an internship program for students to work in various healthcare and life sciences settings, including NIH. "We've been working with George Mason, George Washington, University of Maryland, and Virginia Tech to create a pool of individuals who can really start to spread data science to the broad health sciences community," he said.

Bourne certainly will be building on his own ties to NIH. As chief data officer at NIH, Bourne was a direct report to Director Francis Collins, a UVA graduate.

When Collins was director of the Human Genome Project, he effectively changed industrywide protocol on releasing data prior to publication of scientific literature by pushing NIH to make posting data a condition of participation in the program. During his own time at NIH, Bourne oversaw development of the "commons" principle of data sharing. "That's something we're instilling here as well," he said.

"We developed an open data lab here, which is essentially the same idea. It's a place where data and analytics can reside and can be readily shared across the world to anyone essentially, but certainly across the institution and beyond," Bourne said.

Another core principle of the School of Data Science will be interdisciplinary collaboration.

"Because we sit at the nexus of working across the university, across different data types, we can actually bring data and methodologies to bear that would not necessarily be available in other places," Bourne said. "It's really about amalgamating data from different places.

The current Data Science Institute works with environmental scientists who collect and analyze atmospheric data — the exposome, in biomedical terms. "We might, for example, begin to put that together with some other forms of data that relate to something like autism to look for correlations between certain types of environmental conditions and autism," Bourne said.

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