Press release
August 16, 2007

UC Irvine program that melds life sciences and computers awarded $5.6 million grant

Interdisciplinary training ground is one of 18 nationwide

The UC Irvine Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics (IGB) has been awarded $5.6 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to continue training students to apply advanced computer and information technologies in the biological and medical sciences.

The funding will be used to expand the interdisciplinary Biomedical Informatics Training (BIT) program, an initiative led by IGB Director and Chancellor’s Professor Pierre Baldi and Professor G. Wesley Hatfield to train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the UCI Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, and the schools of physical sciences, biological sciences, and medicine.

One of only 18 such programs in the country, the BIT program in 2002 received from NIH the largest training grant of its kind.

“Biomedical informatics is a two-way synergy that brings together life and computational sciences,” Baldi said. “We can use computers to better understand living systems and conversely draw inspiration from living systems to design better machines for processing information.”

The process and analysis of genomic data increasingly requires advances in storing, networking, analyzing, modeling, and visualizing biological and medical information. The BIT program provides specialized training in both computational and life sciences, and it offers in-depth training that develops core skills in molecular biology and biochemistry, computer modeling of biological systems, statistics, programming, and database development. Every student is required to work with two faculty mentors – each from different disciplines – and to team with another student initially trained in another field.

“Working with advisers and peers from different disciplines gives students a much more comprehensive education in biomedical informatics,” Hatfield said.

Graduates of the BIT program are now working for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies such as Primarion and Sangamo Pharmaceuticals; in industry for businesses such as Focus Diagnostics and CODA Genomics; and in academic positions at institutions such as Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, South Illinois University Carbondale, and UC Irvine. Three honorary program members have gone on to the University of Missouri, University College Dublin, Ireland, and University of Provence/Aix-Marseille in France.

“This is a visionary program now being emulated by other universities,” states an Academic Program Review for the ICS school in 2005. “There is no formal national rating and may not be for some time. Yet, despite the rapid growth in the subfield and the several dozen programs that have been established nationally, the UCI effort in this case is in [the] top 10 now, and should be able to stay there.”

The field of computational biology is booming at UC Irvine. Earlier this month, its Center for Complex Biological Systems received a $14.5 million grant from the NIH to enhance the study of systems biology, or why the human body and other organisms work the way they do. Systems biology also is a research focus of the IGB, which has attracted more than $25 million in research funding since it was established in 2000.