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Fresh Leadership in NIGMS CBCB Post Could Improve Cross-NIH Collaboration

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After a two-year search, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences has found a new director for its Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. Karin Remington took the reins of the CBCB two weeks ago after a stint as project manager for the National Ecological Observatory Network.
 
In addition to overseeing more than 1,300 research and training grants under the auspices of NIGMS, totaling about $89 million, Remington will also oversee the National Institutes’ of Health’s Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative. This program, kicked off in 1999, was designed to better coordinate bioinformatics efforts across NIH institutes, but has seen little success.
 
While Remington’s agenda may still be taking shape, her focus is clear: she is going to get people talking and working together. Even so, Rome — or the NIH — wasn’t built in a day.
 
“I’ve only been here two weeks and a couple days, and [so] right now I am getting my head wrapped around the programs we are currently funding and envisioning,” Remington said. Those programs include the National Centers for Systems Biology and National Centers for Biomedical Computing, which played into her decision to accept the job.
 
While it’s far too early to chart her certain course, Remington appears to have a plan under way. She will chair her first meeting in September, and to prepare for that, she’s been “getting acquainted with people on [the BISTI] consortium and the trajectory that NIGMS has been on.”
 
In a phone interview with BioInform, Remington — who holds a PhD in mathematics — said that a “crazy career path” that included several years at Celera Genomics and the J. Craig Venter Institute led her to her current role. And now that she has the job, she not only hopes but plans to bring together the disparate scientists at NIH involved in computational biology and bioinformatics — two fields she delineates quite clearly.
 
Computational biology, she said, is a broader term that requires the use of statistics, physics, and other sciences to work on a biological problem. She said that oftentimes, computational biology is thought to be more closely aligned with biology than is bioinformatics.
 
“Some people use [the term] ‘bioinformatics’ in a derogatory fashion; that it’s the simple stuff … In some people’s labs, they think of the bioinformaticians as the computer geeks doing some programming on demand, but it has meaning beyond that. People are doing research … not just extracting data, but thinking of new ways to view the data and interpret it,” Remington said.
 
As part of her agenda, though, Remington plans to show all scientific players in the computational biology — or bioinformatics — sector how valuable it is to play in the same sandbox. This could mean showing the bench scientists the benefits of a virtual lab or simply tapping into the value of having so many branches [of NIH] on the same floor of the same building at NIGMS’ Bethesda. Md., headquarters, for example, she said.
 
The degree to which she achieves this could be a direct result of a careful hiring process by the agency, according to John Whitmarsh, who has served as acting director of the CBCB since Remington’s predecessor, Eric Jakobsson, resigned in 2005.
 

“I’ve only been here two weeks and a couple days, and [so] right now I am getting my head wrapped around the programs we are currently funding and envisioning.”

“We were trying to coordinate the intellectual lead” for the position, Whitmarsh told BioInform. They wanted someone who would appreciate the agency’s need for “software tools to be professionalized and share code. That’s a type of question and influence that Karin can have across NIH.”
 
Whitmarsh added that Remington’s experience as both a mathematician and geneticist should help bring together NIH’s 27 institutes and centers in furthering the goals of BISTI. This has been a challenge for NIGMS to date.
 
The BISTI report, which called for better bioinformatics coordination across all NIH institutes, was published in 1999, but it took four years for NIH to find someone to head the initiative — Jakobsson, who took the post in 2003, but left two years later [BioInform 06-02-03].
 
“My breadth of experience is a good leg up,” Remington said, noting that she’s “trained for” bringing together cross-disciplinary teams that include everyone from mathematicians to software engineers to computer scientists to biologists.
 
Remington added that communication between these seemingly disparate groups may not be as difficult as it sounds.
 
“I think one of the biggest challenges is communicating across those disciplines because people speak a different language,” she said. “They could be speaking the same language, though, and just not know it.”

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