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Study: Bioinformatics Education in Germany Makes Advances, But Has Room to Improve

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According to a recent study in Briefings in Bioinformatics, bioinformatics education in Germany has made many advances in the last several years with the help of government funding.
 
“In spite of many research activities, education in bioinformatics as a field of study in its own was insufficient in Germany for a long time, leading to a significant shortage of bioinformatics scientists in academic and industrial research,” the authors wrote.
 
In response, the German Research Foundation kicked off a five-year training initiative in 2000, funding bioinformatics education programs at the Universities of Bielefeld, Leipzig, Munich, Saarland, and Tübingen with a total of around €5 million ($7.9 million) per year.
 
In addition, in 2001 the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research provided €50 million to create six bioinformatics “competence centers” that were expected to complement the research agendas of the university programs.
 
Out of a total of 17 programs that the authors identified in Germany, the paper presents five case studies, highlighting three of the funded programs and two that did not receive government funding, which underscore the “diversity” of approaches toward bioinformatics education in the country, the authors note. These differences arise from the “local academic environment” as well as “the intentions behind the creation of the program,” they said.
 
BioInform recently spoke with one of the authors of the study, Ina Koch of the Technical University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, about these findings.
 

 
What was the motivation for conducting this study?
 
We were invited by Briefings in Bioinformatics to write an article with that topic, so that was the main motivation I have to say. But it was also interesting for us because we got a very good overview about all the foundations and what has happened in Germany, so we also learned a little bit. We were both [Koch and co-author Georg Fullen of the University of Griefswald] involved in many of these projects, so we had some knowledge about bioinformatics education in Germany, but it was still interesting for us.
 
I saw that Briefings in Bioinformatics had also published a review on bioinformatics education in Great Britain [Counsell D. A review of bioinformatics education in the UK. Brief Bioinform 2003; 4(1):7-21], and that was also interesting for me and at that time I thought it would be good [to provide an overview of] German activities in that field.
 
Given that you were familiar with many of these programs, were there any surprises that you came across as you began to dig a little bit deeper?
 
I was a little bit surprised because I didn’t know that so many courses existed in Germany. For example, in Potsdam or in Oldenburg and some smaller universities — especially the universities of applied sciences [The authors distinguish these from other universities in that they offer “application-oriented education including a strong collaboration with industrial partners” — Ed.]. I didn’t know about these courses before.
 
But the funding was known because the bioinformatics community in Germany is not very large, so you know each other usually, and you also know the funding strategies, and so on.
 
What did you find in terms of curriculum? It seems that there has been some debate over this in the community due to the quickly evolving nature of the field and the fact that programs need to somehow include both biology and computer science without leaving out anything important.
 
Most of the courses are very computer science related, so that was a little bit surprising, because the application is for biologists. You’re using, of course, methods of computer science and mathematics, but in Germany most education is first in computer science and then in biology, so that was a little bit surprising. 
 
Did you identify any particular challenges for bioinformatics education, at least in the programs you looked at?
 
Yes. There are now challenges in developing and teaching methods for computational systems biology. So there is an overlap between bioinformatics methods and computational methods for systems biology. And in systems biology, there’s a real great need for new, really good methods, and I think that is the challenge for the future.
 
Do you mean in terms of differentiating these two fields, or bringing them together?
 
More bringing them together, I think. It’s more bringing them together than differentiation. 
 
Did you get a sense at all of where graduates from these programs are being placed, in terms of industry versus academia?
 
All these courses are more in academia, but, for example, Munich has a lot of bioinformatics companies, and these companies have a strong interaction with the universities. In these places you have a much stronger interaction between academia and industry, but that depends really on the local environment of the university.
 
The same is for Freiburg, I think, and also Hamburg.
 
There are also some areas in Germany where you can’t find so much industry and where the economic situation is not so good.
 
You mentioned the review article on programs in the UK. Did you get a sense of how bioinformatics education in Germany may compare to other countries?
 
In the UK, I think the development was similar as in Germany. In the [United] States, I think bioinformatics courses were around much earlier. The US is much faster in creating new educational courses and curricula than here in Europe, I think. I know that in France many courses are now starting, but not in such a systematic manner as in Germany or the UK. Spain also has a lot of activity, and Italy, and Austria, also, but I have no overview of how many [programs] there are in these countries
 
Based on what you did find, would you have any recommendations for existing or future programs in Germany or elsewhere?
 
I think it is always good if you teach, of course, the basics in mathematics in computer science, but I think it’s also important to provide courses in wet biology, because it is another kind of thinking. The thinking in computer science and mathematics is totally different from the thinking in biology, especially if you are doing experimental work. And you need that understanding of experimental work if you want to provide good methods and tools for biologists.
 
Some programs do have wet biology courses for the students, but you can’t teach everything for both topics. That is not possible, and that’s why it’s good to teach the foundations of both and then go into specialization, which depends on the local constellation — which people you have in the university, which companies you have in the local area, and so on.

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