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Q&A: Karin Remington on the Role of NIGMS's New Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Division


This week, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences said that it has set up two new divisions that will administer existing NIGMS programs along with programs transferred to the department from the former National Center for Research and Resources.

As part of the reorganization, programs from the NIGMS Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology will be combined with NCRR's biomedical technology programs and administered by the new Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology at NIGMS.

The new division, headed by former CBCB Director Karin Remington, will support research and training in areas that join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, mathematics, and physics, NIGMS said.

In bioinformatics, the division will support research to develop algorithms and tools for managing, visualizing, and analyzing scientific datasets as well as database development and maintenance. Under its computational biology arm, NIGMS will provide grants for biological modeling and simulation tools as well as systems biology projects ranging from the subcellular level to population scale.

The division's biomedical technology responsibilities, meantime, include projects that involve high-performance computing, molecular imaging, structural biology, and proteomics.

NIGMS said that its reorganization efforts will not affect the funds allocated to its programs. Additionally, most grants in the new divisions will be managed by the same staff members, the institute said.

NCRR was dissolved late last year as part of a plan to establish a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences focused on moving basic research findings into application (GWDN 12/28/2011).

This week, BioInform spoke with Remington about the responsibilities of the new Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology, the impact of the reorganization on existing informatics programs, and her 2012 agenda.

What follows is an edited version of the conversation.

What motivated NIGMS' reorganization?

This was prompted [by] the office of director of NIH. I think there were two things going on at the same time: the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and reimagining how the National Center for Research Resources might be realigned so that the different programs within that center could be matched with the places where they would more naturally go. A lot of the programs from NCRR were transferring to NCATS. I think it was really natural to look and see where other programs would go.

The center at NIGMS for computational biology and bioinformatics is receiving the biomedical technology programs from the NCRR and that was just a really natural fit for us. We know the program officers really well there. I think we're really lucky to have that kind of extra depth — not just for our informatics program that we have at NIGMS but also for the rest of the divisions within NIGMS.

NIGMS is the basic science institute and we have a lot of programs across our divisions that really rely on the kinds of technologies that both bioinformatics and computational biology supply. These technology resource centers and the other programs that are coming to us from NCRR are just really a perfect fit for that. It completes our portfolio in a nice way.

Is NCRR shutting down?

Yes, they were formally disbanded with this announcement of the transition to the new center for translational science and this reorganization at NIGMS.

Was it because of a funding issue?

Well there are some funding issues that go with it. [But] all the programs are transferring to somewhere, it's not as if any of the programs are dismantled or anything is being cut. In terms of the funding, the funding is going with the programs. We are just reorganizing and trying to put things ... where everybody is going to be best aligned.

What programs specifically are coming over from NCRR?

We have a good portfolio of investigator-initiated research in the area of biomedical technology but it is also things like informatics for optical and laser technology, [which] is an area that has been funded traditionally by NCRR but has really close affinity to some of our divisions within NIGMS; structural biology technology; things like electron microscopy; and then also systems biology, which is really one of the key points of our center that we have had. The CBCB at NIGMS has been focused a lot on systems biology approaches [and] bringing computation in together with a real systems-oriented approach. That has been a real strength of the NCRR programs, and the resources that they have developed over the last several years will be coming to us here.

On the CBCB side, are there any changes to existing bioinformatics and computational biology programs?

What we will be trying to do as we find out exactly which projects and personnel are coming from NCRR is to align those things. There really isn't any dramatic change except that we get this addition to the technology side that we haven’t had before. I think the biggest thing that we are working on is just trying to make sure that we have a good understanding of all of our program officers' expertise in the areas that we really need to focus on because we are trying to figure out how make sure that we have all the bases covered.

It seems that there is some overlap in the programs that CBCB has and the ones that are coming over from NCRR, so is there a possibility that some programs might be dropped?

I don’t think that anything will be dropped. It really is more an additive sort of thing. The overlap is really not in terms of redundancy in funding. It's really complementary funding. I think what we are going to be able to do is really just blend things together. If there are particular programs in NCRR that are really closely aligned with bioinformatics, for example, we would be folding them into our bioinformatics portfolio.

What will the new division's responsibilities be?

We'll have three different branches or areas of emphasis. One is really focusing on the biomedical technology — more the instrumentation and things that go behind the scenes. Biomedical technology is the newcomer into our picture. [Although] we have had some grants like that before in some of our other divisions, this is really going to bring us a good focus and a new pool of applicants for NIGMS and new expertise in terms of our program officers being able to handle that kind of program area. Then we will retain the areas of bioinformatics and computational biology, and cutting across those is our systems biology program, which brings together all three of those areas.

Each of these areas are cross-cutting for our institute. They affect all of the other divisions within NIGMS.

Is there an impact on funding?

There is really not supposed to be any impact. I think our biggest issue with funding right now is that our congressional appropriation is coming through and that has been our only funding concern. We have been assured that all the programs that are coming from NCRR are coming with both the personnel that are associated with them and with the funding that’s associated with them, so we don’t have any worry about that at all. And NIGMS finds this program is right in line with what we like to fund, with the kind of science that we like to do, and the kind of thing that would support our researchers. So there isn't any interest on our part in cutting their funding or in trying to change those programs except for just melding them into how NIGMS does business.

What's new division's total budget?

My impression is that we wind up with about double the budget in CBCB that we had before with these biomedical technology research centers. We wound up doubling our staff in terms of program officers in our group and I think that is commensurate with roughly doubling in terms of the budget.

Our training grants, I don’t think will change in association with this transition. The center grants that NCRR has traditionally supported do have a number of programs that support training as a sub-component of a research project and those things will be maintained.

In terms of our training grants that fund pre-doctoral research students, those will probably not change in terms of the scope. We fund about 10 or 12 institutions for these institutional training grants and there is nothing that’s expected to change with respect to that. The [Institutional Development Award] program from NCRR is coming into NIGMS as well but it really is kind of a separate process. That’s a training program that’s coming into our new training and workforce development division.

How many staff are coming in?

We will have four new staff and that doubles the program officer staff that we have and it will gives us a really good critical mass. One of the things that we leverage at NIGMS is a shared expertise. People from other divisions who are interested in computational biology will take on grants within our area and so we wind up leveraging all that expertise that extends across the institute, but this will really give us a critical mass of folks who will be really geared toward building up a really strong program in these areas of biomedical technology, bioinformatics, and computational biology and trying to integrate them. Bringing that integration and the strength that we would have working together as a larger group is going to be important for us going forward.

Are you hiring?

Not to my knowledge, but I think we are trying to figure out exactly what the hiring policies will be.

Will the incoming staff have different roles?

They will largely be monitoring the same programs that they have had in NCRR and then we will just be gradually adjusting and trying to find the right match for the program officers with the programs that we already have. That’s the work we will be doing in the next couple of months.

what's your agenda for 2012 for the new division?

One of the biggest things is to make sure that we have a constancy with the applicant community and the grantee community from NCRR. That they know that NIGMS is the right home for them and that we really have a lot of opportunities for programs to fit in.

In terms of research areas that we are interested in, I think we are really interested in areas that bring computational science and biotechnology into the research environment that NIH supports. We are looking at things like graph theory and network analysis, systems biology approaches, really bringing computational science into an integrated systems sort of approach. [Also] biostatistics, [which] is one of the things that I think is a real funding need for NIH generally speaking and that’s where NIGMS can help in terms of providing that basic level of support. Something like biostatistics cuts across all of our research institutes so it’s a really important area and one that’s underserved by the traditional alignment of our institutes within NIH.

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