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Wanted: bioinformatic talent

by Mary Beth Gardiner

For the past year or so, scientific leaders across Vanderbilt have been methodically trying to determine how to give Vanderbilt more of a presence in bioinformatics. The first step, ironically enough, was to define bioinformatics. Because the term is used so broadly, it seemed important to get a more global perspective.

“We spent a whole year bringing in a group of distinguished scientists from across the world, all of whom have recognition in this area but in very different aspects of it,” says Heidi Hamm, “to come and spend a couple of days with us, to give a seminar and to let us pick their brains. We asked them what direction they thought Vanderbilt should go, and we asked for names of people they thought we should recruit.”

Hamm was the chairperson of the committee, called the Transinstitutional Bioinformatics Initiative Recruitment Team, or T-BIRT, charged with exploring options and making recommendations. The team consisted of faculty members representing each of the major areas on campus that make use of bioinformatics tools, including proteomics, computational and structural biology, mathematical modeling, biological sciences, imaging, computer science, and medical bioinformatics.

Other T-BIRT members included Constantin Aliferis, Mary Edgerton, Jason Moore, Richard Caprioli, Terry Lybrand, Walter Chazin, Martin Egli, Jim Staros, Emmanuele DiBenedetto, David Piston, and Benoit Dawant.

“Together we came up with the names of people we’d like to come and visit,” Hamm says. “By the end of the year, we had a really nice body of shared experience of what we want to create here at Vanderbilt. It took a while for us all to get on the same page, but it was a lot of fun and we learned a lot during the year. After one more university-wide tally of existing computational and informatics talent, we will be ready to launch recruitment of key, transformative bioinformaticians.”

One individual who came for a visit and was successfully recruited is Erik Boczko, who started at Vanderbilt on July 1. Boczko, who holds doctoral degrees in both biophysics and mathematics, is an expert in the area of machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence. With the algorithms he builds, he attempts to cluster different subsets of genes identified from massive arrays of gene profiling data based on some variable, such as a signaling pathway or a specific function. Boczko is working with Constantin Aliferis in the department of Biomedical Informatics.

Many of the consultants advised enriching computer science and applied mathematics on campus, as well as adding more biologically oriented computational scientists, in order to build a truly significant and competitive bioinformatics program with national stature. The visitors also emphasized finding the right leaders to recruit to Vanderbilt.

Finding the right people will be a challenge because a lot of institutions are trying to do this at the same time, Hamm says. “It’s so competitive that the very good senior leaders are being recruited by multiple places. Young people might have their own area of specialization, but the challenge would be getting the critical mass of a group of young bioinformaticians that work well together.

“What we’re trying to say is we want to put Vanderbilt into the next grand phase of biological research,” she continues. “We want to bring in people who can help us inject more quantitative approaches into biology, but we want to avoid the pitfalls of getting the wrong people. It’s a very fast-moving field, so you want to have people who are at the forefront, who are thinking about what the next approaches are and how to go about getting there.”