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Q&A: GW's Keith Crandall Outlines Agenda for New Computational Biology Institute


Crandall.jpgGeorge Washington University has tapped Keith Crandall to be the founding director of a new Computational Biology Institute that the university is setting up at its Science and Technology Campus in Ashburn, Va.

The new institute will be housed in a dedicated facility and will focus on large-scale integrative bioinformatics and genomics. As part of these efforts, it will create new positions in computational biology research.

The institute will also build upon existing partnerships between GW and groups such as the Children's National Medical Center, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm campus, the Inova hospital system, the Naval Research Laboratory, Virginia Tech-Arlington, and the National Institutes of Health's intramural research program, GW said.

Crandall will be responsible for defining the scientific vision of the institute as well as directing the development and implementation of research plans and organizational structures. He'll also be in charge of hiring new faculty as well as integrating existing faculty and resources across the university. He will serve as a professor of biology at GW.

Prior to moving to GW, Crandall served on the faculty of Brigham Young University since 1996. He chaired that institution's biology department starting in 2007.

Crandall has bachelor's degrees in biology and mathematics from Kalamazoo College, and a master's in statistics and a doctorate in population and evolutionary biology from Washington University in St. Louis.

This week, BioInform spoke with Crandall about his plans for GW's newly minted institute. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

You've been at BYU since 1996. What made you decide to make the move to GW?

The driving factor is really the opportunity to start a computational biology institute. It's an exciting challenge for me. I spent the last six years as department chair at the department of biology at BYU and my term was running up and I was looking for another challenge in life and this one looked like a great opportunity. To start such an institute at a place with such outstanding faculty and tremendous administrative support was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

You officially take on the director's role on July 1. Will the center open for business on that day as well?

No. In fact, I spent yesterday looking at four different potential spaces for the center. It'll probably be the new year before the physical space of the institute is ready to roll. I've got some temporary space for an office and to accommodate some post-docs.

I've got five faculty positions to hire in addition to myself to fill up the institute. It will take me some time to advertise, do interviews, and start hiring some folks so that'll be probably a two-year process and by the time other people start coming on board, we'll have the space and the institute well situated. In the meantime, when they hired me they weren't quite anticipating somebody with molecular lab needs as well and I do have a significant molecular lab component as well as the computational component so we're still working that one out.

I was surprised by one of the statements in the press release announcing your appointment, which stated that GW is one of the first universities to establish an institute dedicated to computational biology. Is that really the case?

I was surprised by that one too. Technically it is, if you go by that particular name, but there are similar sorts of things that have been set up by other institutions [that] tend to go by [other] names — genomics and computation or bioinformatics or things like that. So it's all in the name. In reality, there are a lot of universities that are setting up centers or institutes in the areas of informatics, whether you call it bioinformatics or systems biology or computational biology. They're all looking towards the same goal, which is to have the capacity to accommodate and capitalize on the genomic era data in a computational way.

Did GW already have a computational biology program in existence?

They have a bioinformatics program through the medical school but other than that, no. They have some exceptional computational biologists and they are in a variety of different places ... The idea of forming this formal institute is not only to hire some new faculty but also to congeal the exceptional faculty who are already there and get them functioning more as a group and develop a more established program centered around computational biology.

What are you up to now and what will your duties be when the center is finally functional?

Right now it's designing the space, getting [it] established, and hiring fantastic people. Once [they're hired], it's keeping them going, feeding the research machine. [GW] definitely hired me with the goal of increasing the research prowess of the university. They want to do that through highly active grant activity that includes extensive collaborations both across campus and across the region as well with outside industry partners like Inova Healthcare systems and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Smithsonian and all these partners that [are] in the area.

In terms of your research agenda, are there specific areas where you think the institute will focus its efforts?

The pitch that I made when I was interviewing ... argued for three major areas where I think we could have some real success very quickly. The first is in biodiversity informatics because GW has extensive collaborations with the Smithsonian [Museum], the Natural History Museum, as well as some outstanding molecular systematists ... so we've got a good head start in that area where with a couple of key hires from the computational end, I think we can build on those strengths.

Another is translational medicine. There is a lot of active research going on independently in terms of taking these discoveries that people make on genetic diversity associated with risk factors for diseases or with interactions with different drugs and turning them into information that physicians can use when they are prescribing medications or attempting to do diagnoses. There is a lot of active research, especially at the medical school, in that area and I think that's something that as an institute we can really capitalize on and help move forward in a broader, more comprehensive way.

The third one is systems biology. There is a department of integrative systems biology and a lot of effort going on in that area of understanding gene interaction networks ... trying to look at not just single genes but whole pathways and not just genetic variants but variation at the proteomic level and gene expression level and how these things interact — that’s all a ... computational problem.

Can you talk a little bit about some projects in each of these areas that are either ongoing or could potentially launch soon under the auspices of the institute?

I can give you some examples from my own research in terms of biodiversity informatics. I am part of a broad group of investigators from 10 different institutions that just got funded from the National Science Foundation for the Open Tree of Life where we are trying to put together the tree of life. It hasn’t been done before because of significant computational issues and putting together a phylogeny for every described species on the planet. That’s an example of the kind of project that we'd be looking to tackle in biodiversity informatics, setting that framework for organizing and understanding biodiversity.

Do you have the requisite compute infrastructure in place to support research projects in these areas or do you think you might need to do some shopping?

[GW] has a strong high-performance computing center that’s based here on the Virginia Science and Technology campus. They have some great resources to start with but I also envision … that I am really going to try to encourage faculty as they put in grant proposals that have something to do with computational biology to include an equipment budget for another 20 nodes for the computing cluster. If you get everybody on campus doing 10 to 20 nodes at a time, then it doesn’t take you too long ... to really beef up your computing power.

This area also has exceptional high-speed Internet connectivity. There are commercial data centers that are based here [and] I'm already getting appointments to meet with a variety of these folks.

Besides being a director, will you have any other roles at the university?

I have my primary appointment as a professor in the department of biology. I am working on filling out the paperwork for an appointment in the integrative systems biology department as part of the medical school and I am also filling out an application to be a research scientist at the Smithsonian.

So you're working on the Open Tree of Life project. What other research are you involved in?

We've got a sub-award as part of that group and we've got a couple of different aspects of research going on in that project. One is developing software to gather this phylogenetic data and link it together in the context of this tree of life and the other aspect is more the empirical end of people who are in the systematics community and know the research community and the literature and can marshal the masses to participate in the project. We can’t put this together ourselves. What we need is everybody out there who is generating phylogenetic data to put those data into this effort to flush out the entire tree.

One of my roles is to engage that community and as we do that, part of what we want to do to make this beneficial to the community is provide some computational tools and data analyses that are really useful to phylogenetic researchers. Part of this effort is to be beta testers of the software that we are developing; identify where there are tools that we would like to see developed; where things are working and where they are not ... and then roll that out to the systematics community.

You mentioned earlier that you are hiring. What positions are you looking to fill and in what areas?

I have five positions: a senior full professor, an associate professor, two assistant professors, and one research scientist. What areas we are looking to fill is yet to be determined.

Finally, a year from now, what do you hope you will have accomplished?

I hope to have at least an initial space built out and ready to roll; some significant computational resources; have some on-campus people signed on in these three focal areas, or if we decide that there are other areas that are more important or better areas to focus in; have at least two or three of those five positions filled up ... If that all happens in the first year, I'll be a happy guy.

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