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Heeding Industry s Call, Universities Begin To Offer Bioinformatics Degrees, Courses


SANTA CRUZ, Calif.--As pharmaceutical, life sciences, and biotech companies struggle to fill bioinformatics slots with qualified candidates, US institutions of higher education are beginning to respond to industry's need. PhD, master's, and undergraduate degree programs in bioinformatics are cropping up at universities around the country. BioInform surveyed a few programs to learn how students are being prepared for positions in this burgeoning discipline, and what challenges face the schools training the next generation of bioinformaticists.

Russ Altman, of Stanford's medical informatics group, said the bioinformatics program there offers master's and PhD degrees but opens classes to undergraduates. However, he added, the program is primarily for doctoral students who want to lead academic labs or commercial research and development groups.

Master's degree candidates are required to complete the same coursework as PhD students but perform less research. Their focus is on skills required to staff corporate laboratories. "They are ready to go out and contribute to industry," Altman claimed.

At all levels, Stanford seeks candidates whose primary interest is in bioinformatics, rather than biology or computer science students who need retraining, he added. A strong background in biology, computer science, and core bioinformatics courses provides a good base for solving problems and also prepares students to handle challenges they'll face as the field evolves, Altman said.

Giving students the skills they'll need to solve real-world problems is critical to Stanford's approach to educating bioinformaticists. Training includes how to make presentations and write proposals, as well as some business courses. "Students think this stuff is a waste of time until they get an industry job, then they thank us for it," he concluded.

Washington University, in St. Louis, offers graduate and undergraduate courses in bioinformatics and degrees at the master's and PhD levels. David States, Washington's bioinformatics program director, said the program attracts computer science and biology students. Increasing quality of candidates "reflects a growing interest in the field," he claimed.

States said he originally designed Washington's bioinformatics program for PhD candidates, but then found that "the master's option is filling a critical need" by training students to fill jobs in industry laboratories. As bioinformatics plays a bigger role in molecular biology, States said he expected classes on the subject to become required coursework for molecular biology students.

Interdisciplinary challenges

States observed that some "institutional challenges" are raised by the multidisciplinary nature of bioinformatics. Presently at the University of Washington in Seattle, students earning bioinformatics graduate credits must take courses from faculty in various departments. Ira Kalet, who heads a team instituting an official bioinformatics master's and possibly a PhD program there, said that "the new program will give people a single place to go."

Kalet's plan is to establish a bioinformatics core curriculum that will bring students from biological, medical, engineering, or computer science backgrounds to the same level. "By the time they've completed the preliminary courses, they will be equally strong," he claimed. A benefit of the University of Washington program, he contended, is that its diverse faculty members are already used to working together. "We have people who are willing to work across fields," Kalet noted.

Pragmatic training

Warren Ewens, professor of biology and director of the computational biology program at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, reported that it has been a struggle to recruit qualified students. "We try to find people with a strong background in both biology and computer science," he said, "but it has been hard to find these students."

To address the problem, Penn began offering an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics to provide early training. The undergraduate courses are a good source of future graduate students, Ewens said. "The best thing is to catch them when they are young. That way they get the dual training early on," he observed

Ewens added that bioinformatics's dual emphasis on biology and computer science makes no department a perfect fit for the program, and it is "difficult to convince administrators that faculty positions in bioinformatics are urgently needed." For universities to keep bright bioinformatics faculty on board, tenure-track jobs must be created specifically in bioinformatics, he argued.

In some cases, companies are so eager for bioinformatics talent that they hire students with only undergraduate degrees. Will Gilbert, a scientist at the Astra Research Center for Bioinformatics in Cambridge, Mass., teaches an undergraduate bioinformatics course at the University of New Hampshire, where he is also a research professor. Undergraduates with some bioinformatics background are highly qualified for many positions with biotech or pharmaceutical companies, he claimed.

"We give our students a little edge so their resumes stand out," Gilbert added. In his 12-week course, students learn how to get a consensus sequence from data they are given, run a Blast search, identify the sequence, search a database for related sequences, and write a paper proposing future experiments with the sequence. Gilbert said his students leave the course ready to be high-end users of bioinformatics tools.

In fact, Gilbert claimed that undergraduate bioinformatics programs can produce graduates who are better prepared to meet industry needs than some postgraduate programs. Graduate programs "need to be more pragmatic," he said, rather than producing bioinformaticists who are "so far out in the theoretical" that they aren't useful to companies.

According to Ewens, Penn tries to avoid that trap by taking advantage of its proximity to many biotech companies in the Philadelphia area. For instance, the school often invites industry speakers to campus to tell students what skills they need. Similarly, faculty at the University of Washington, Washington University, and Stanford also seek input from the corporate world.

Who will teach the next generation?

Washington's States said his students are not specifically trained for private-sector jobs, however. "Addressing the academic career path is a major challenge," he observed, since high corporate salaries often make it "hard to convince people to stay in academics."

Kalet agreed, "It is hard to recruit bright people to join the faculty." One problem is that while industry wants universities to train more students, the schools aren't allocating resources to support them, he claimed. Lured by corporate salaries that he called "completely out of line" and better research space, top graduates are finding it hard to resist industry jobs, Kalet said.

Altman added that in other disciplines people might be willing to exchange money for the freedom and security of an academic job, but in bioinformatics, industry offers interesting scientific challenges and gives employees quite a bit of freedom. "The effect of losing students to industry is that it becomes harder and harder to train new students. Not only do you lose them, but also all the people they would have trained," Altman observed.

--Amy Adams

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