by Mary Beth
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
Together we came up with the names of people wed 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
Finding the right people will be a challenge because a lot of institutions
are trying to do this at the same time, Hamm says. Its
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 were 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. Its 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.