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New Penn Program Will Offer First Undergraduate Bioinformatics Degree

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PHILADELPHIA--The University of Pennsylvania here will be the nation's first institution of higher education to offer undergraduate students a degree in bioinformatics. The new degree is just one of the initiatives at the school's new Center for Bioinformatics, one of a growing number of efforts to overcome traditional barriers in higher education between biology, medicine, and computer science.

"The center will bring an in tense ly interdisciplinary approach to research and training in bioinformatics and computational biology," codirector Chris Overton told BioInform. "It will bring together a critical mass of the very best and brightest faculty and students, who will be able to take advantage of the university's strengths in medicine, the sciences, and engineering."

Formally organized in May, the center is the product of an accelerated, year-long planning process that brought together three of Penn's major departments: the School of Arts and Sciences; the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and the School of Medicine. Administrators from those schools have committed what Overton described as "substantial startup funds to recruit new faculty and build the center's infrastructure." Key players in deciding the shape of that infrastructure will be Overton, codirector Susan Davidson of the engineering school, and educational director Warren Ewins of arts and sciences.

New Faculty Sought

One of their early tasks will be to hire three new faculty members with expertise in the medical applications of bioinformatics. Even tually, the center--which currently involves nine faculty--will also hire professors with expertise in computer science, genetics, and related fields. The center also has two adjunct faculty from SmithKline Beecham Pharma ceuticals, who are part of an outreach effort the program is making to industry. While Overton believes Penn "has the resources necessary to attract top-notch investigators," he also said that, like industry, academia faces a serious talent shortage.

The new center's faculty will be asked to help create a wide range of educational programs, aimed at both graduate and undergraduate students, that will "make the center an exciting place to be," Overton continued. The center already has funds from the National Science Foundation to support doctoral and postdoctoral students interested in being "cross-trained" in both biology and computer science. As word of the cross-training program spreads, the program is receiving applications from "more and higher quality students," he noted. Currently, Overton and other center faculty oversee about 10 doctoral and postdoctoral students.

Masters Program: Preparation to Work in Industry

This fall, the center will add a new master's degree program for students interested in working in the biotechnology industry. The program will be "squarely aimed at preparing students to work in industry," said Overton, who added that a number of Pennsylvania-based biomedical companies reviewed the curriculum. Students admitted to the program will focus on one of three areas--bioinformatics, molecular biology, or cell and tissue process engineering--and may also be able to intern with prospective employers. Despite little advertising, the new program "is attracting more people than we may be able to handle. We will be happy to get 10 students total, but we are already looking at five or 10 people interested in the bioinformatics track alone," Overton commented.

The fall will also mark the introduction of what appears to be the nation's first pure bioinformatics degree for undergraduates. It was created "to satisfy the surprisingly large number of students who already, on their own, take courses in both engineering and biology," according to Overton, who predicted up to 20 of Penn's 10,000 undergraduate students may pursue the degree.

Penn's explicit commitment to interdisciplinary research, formally expressed in a major strategic plan the university has adopted, will allow the center to overcome institutional barriers that have long plagued efforts to build bridges between academic disciplines, Overton explained. "It is hard to start something like this, but Penn has created a very supportive and exciting environment for this kind of program," he observed. For example, he noted that while the university's specialized centers usually are housed within only one school, the Center for Bioinformatics will span three. In recognition of this broad reach, Penn has initially housed in the center within the Institute for Medicine and Engineering, another wide-ranging, interdisciplinary structure.

The progress of the Penn center is sure to be watched by academic administrators and bioinformatics experts around the world, observers told BioInform. Many administrators are now trying to integrate molecular biology and computer science programs that, for decades, have had little communication. In the last few years, for example, a number of major American and European universities have revamped and expanded their programs in computational biology. The advent of industrially focused bioinformatics, however, has challenged universities to think anew about how to deliver the interdisciplinary training that the emerging profession demands.

If it is successful, the approach taken by Penn, which has pioneered a number of academic innovations since its founding in 1740, is sure to be copied, according to bioinformatics professionals.

--David Malakoff

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