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What Can the IEEE Do for Bioinformatics? A Lot, Says Computer Society Executive


Bioinformatics has hit the radar screen of the world’s largest professional computing association. The IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Computer Society — 97,000 members strong — placed bioinformatics at the top of its list of around 50 potential emerging technologies about a year ago, said Deborah Scherrer, vice president of the society.

The organization is hoping to strengthen its ties to the bioinformatics community with a new conference series, which kicks off August 14 to 16 at Stanford University.

But the IEEE wants to play a more active role than conference host, said Scherrer, who noted that bioinformatics came away as the “dead runaway winner” in the society’s emerging technology task force not only because of its potential for growth within the broader computing community, but because “we saw the greatest need there. It’s where we felt we could help the most.”

Noting the obvious challenge in the field of marrying the skills, methodologies, and vocabularies of the often divergent fields of computer science and biology, Scherrer said the IEEE could bring a new level of computational capabilities to the bioinformatics community, which has “not yet fully tapped into the computer science world.” Conversely, she pointed out, very few computer scientists have any knowledge of biology, so the upcoming meeting will be structured to bring the two communities together via panel discussions and tutorials. “We don’t want the computer scientists to go to one meeting and the biologists to go to another,” she said.

For example, a panel discussion on open source bioinformatics is scheduled, with the goal of bringing together intellectual property policy-makers, university technology transfer systems, private and public sector developers, and users of bioinformatics tools. Scherrer said that the “ethos of science” behind bioinformatics has encouraged a greater degree of open source development than in other industries, and has raised a number of issues not yet encountered in the general-purpose computer science community.

Around two-thirds of the registered attendees for the upcoming conference are IEEE members, said Scherrer.

Beyond the conference series, the society plans to launch a “community-oriented research website” for bioinformatics that will offer research resources, tutorials, and discussion groups on key issues for the field. The IEEE is also mulling the possibility of launching a bioinformatics-themed journal.

Relationships with existing bioinformatics groups, including the International Society for Computational Biologists, are being forged, said Scherrer. In addition, the IEEE Computer Society is working with the IEEE’s Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society to boost its bioinformatics-related activities as well.


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