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Sloan Foundation To Fund Several Two-Year Bioinformatics Masters Degree Programs

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NEW YORK--For industry-oriented scientists looking to secure degrees that guarantee high-paying jobs at fast-moving companies, "B-school" could soon have a whole new connotation.

As part of a broad plan to reform graduate science education by engendering professional two-year masters degree programs, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will begin awarding grants to schools that create such curricula in bioinformatics. Recent developments in the computational molecular biology arena point to "a substantial and growing demand for persons with professional masters degrees," analogous to degrees for professions such as business, law, and engineering, the foundation claimed.

Sloan announced last week that it is prepared to grant up to six awards on the order of $150,000 each to schools that will begin enrolling students in intensive two-year bioinformatics masters degree programs in September 2000. The foundation will accept proposals through mid-October and announce awards in December.

Sheila Tobias, author of seven books on science and math education reform and a member of Sloan's expert committee to review proposals for the new programs, has long been a proponent of establishing professional science schools. "Instead of tinkering with PhDs we should invent entirely new degrees," Tobias told BioInform. Professional science degrees, she said, will "provide training and a launch pad for a wider variety of options than is currently available."

Bioinformatics, chosen for the abundant employment prospects in the field, "is one piece of a larger picture," Tobias said, adding, "It is part of a radical rethinking of graduate education."

Since 1994, Sloan and the US Department of Energy have jointly operated a transitional postdoctoral awards program, which has granted 35 awards for computational molecular biology study to recent PhDs in physics, math, computer science, chemistry, and related fields. In 1997, the foundation also initiated funding for professional degrees in 16 science and math tracks, including bioinformatics programs at the Georgia Institue of Technology and the University of Southern California.

Now, with demand for masters-level bioinformatics personnel increasing as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies seek to rapidly expand their workforces in computationally intensive biological research, Sloan will target the discipline.

Students most likely to enroll would be those who have recently earned bachelors degrees in biological or computational fields, according to Sloan's research. Large numbers of new graduates with bachelors degrees in biology, biochemistry, cellular/molecular biology, evolutionary biology, computer science, and engineering are unprepared for entry-level jobs in biocomputationally intensive fields, the foundation contended.

Another candidate pool from which a bioinformatics graduate program would draw includes current employees of biotech and pharmaceutical companies seeking to expand their skills or move out of the laboratory environment while remaining in research. Recent graduate degree holders from fields such as mathematics, statistics, medicine, epidemiology, and computer science would also be potential candidates for such a program, the foundation predicted.

Tobias said another possible benefit of professional schools for bioinformatics would be their ability to attract a more diverse body of students to the profession. "Once we're offering a graduate degree that doesn't take 7-9 years and lead exclusively to research, I believe nonresearch-oriented women and men will be attracted," she said.

To achieve critical mass, the foundation said it envisions programs scaled to include, at a minimum, 15-40 students per entering class. Because career prospects will likely make it possible for students or their employers to pay tuition, the foundation said it will not provide financial support directly to students. Instead, grants will be awarded to offset startup costs for universities. Based on its previous experience, the foundation estimated the budget for the startup phase of a professional bioinformatics masters degree program at $150,000.

Proposals, due to program administrator Michael Teitelbaum by October 18, 1999, will be reviewed by a committee of experts that will include: Mark Borodovsky, professor of bioinformatics at Georgia Institute of Technology; Michael Liebman, bioinformatics director at Wyeth-Ayerst Research; Simon Tavaré, professor of biological sciences, math, and preventive medicine at University of Southern California; and Tobias, who was previously on contract as a science education researcher with the Research Corporation in Tucson, Ariz. More information will soon be available at http://www.sloan.org.

--Adrienne Burke

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