Forums to help plan CWRU future in bioinformatics

by Marci Hersh

Provost James Wagner and Richard Hanson, professor in the Department of Biochemistry, co-chaired the first of a series of University-wide forums on bioinformatics, the systematic development and application of information technologies and data-mining techniques for analyzing data obtained by experiments, modeling, database searching, and instrumentation to make novel observations about biological processes.

The March 9 forum included Evan Eichler, assistant professor in the Department of Genetics; Yoh-Han Pao, the George S. Dively Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; John Witte, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics; and Cenk Sahinalp, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

CWRU faculty used the open dialogue to begin sketching the university's academic development of bioinformatics.

"The goal of the forum was to set up a mechanism to implement planning for the development of bioinformatics at CWRU, to unite in our approach to help us find our current range of activities in bioinformatics, to identify our existing strengths and to utilize them to further our research and teaching efforts," Wagner said.

More than 100 faculty and staff attended the forum, where speakers gave detailed outlines of their current research. Eichler identified five points to help CWRU clarify its future in bioinformatics:

"Genetics 508, as an example, is already being taught, and has its own Web page," Eichler said. "We could begin here using what we might call trickle-up bioinformatics," he added.

Other members of the panel made suggestions for bioinformatics. Pao, for example, suggested forming a team dedicated to computational biomolecular processes.

"I am an information processor," Pao said. "The roles of bioinformatics include database considerations -- signal processing considerations, annotations, learning, prediction, and control -- and information considerations like networking."

Witte, whose studies focus on genetic and other biological information, identified five areas in bioinformatics: data management, including lab data; statistical analysis; genetic research; modeling networks of genes; and pharmacogenomics, which includes drug development and disease management.

"CWRU's strength in engineering, medicine, and science makes the University strongly positioned for bioinformatics research and teaching," Witte said.

Sahinalp spoke on computational biology. "There are many challenges, which need people with expertise in estimation, genetics, and other fields, to help identify problems in our research and simplify tasks," Sahinalp said. "We should consider trying to attract Ph.D. students who are willing to take on these new scientific challenges."

The forum helped Wagner identify and gather a group of considerable existing expertise in bioinformatics. "We've established that we need to adopt a philosophy of going on our strengths and not following other programs outside CWRU," he said.

"I would expect leaders in our areas of strength must become even more conversant with one another if we are to advance to the point where we can become a major player and contributor in the field of bioinformatics at CWRU," Wagner added. "Ultimately, the goal is to charge a task force with the challenge of identifying how best to solidify the University's strengths toward a major research and educational thrust in bioinformatics."

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