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Informatics: a computational dive into some of life’s mysteries

Gordon Springer is a man who thinks big about lots of minute bits of information.

As Scientific Director for the University of Missouri’s Bioinformatics Consortium, Springer is in charge of developing and supporting electronic systems that will do the high- performance computing required by MU medical and bioinformatics researchers and the University’s new Informatics Institute (MUII).

Just one of the several computing clusters that Springer oversees—a bank of 512 CPUs nicknamed Lewis—exerts a teraflop of computational power every second—one trillion computations. To put that in perspective, one trillion seconds is equal to 31,689 years.

As scientists decode life’s intricate genetic mechanisms, the computational ability to analyze massive amounts of minute data has become an integral component of biological and medical research.

“Biological scientists know very little about the computational side of things,” said Springer.  “They need a mechanism to organize and collect data, and we can develop tools and resources to help them. Without the use of computers, there is no hope that we can ever make sense out of all the data being generated.”

In the blink of an eye, computers like Lewis make connections and generate original data. Resulting computations open doors to additional research opportunities, and collaborations between researchers in life sciences and computer scientists grow increasingly inevitable. That makes the field of bioinformatics a shining scientific frontier.

To address this scientific partnership and the need for an informatics-savvy curriculum, faculty researchers from the School of Medicine, College of Engineering and the Bond Life Sciences Center spent years poring over related issues. The diverse group hammered out details to facilitate collaborative research and to create a doctoral degree program in bioinformatics and health informatics at MU.

In January 2008, Chi-Ren Shyu, computer science’s Paul K. and Dianne Shumaker associate professor in informatics, was appointed as MUII’s director, spearheading curriculum development and faculty recruitment. Soon after, MU’s Graduate Faculty Senate approved the new informatics curriculum that forms the backbone of the program.

“This entire area of work is blooming,” said Shyu, pleased with the chain of events. “With MUII, we can streamline our system-wide interdisciplinary research and build upon it.”

The institute’s mission is three-pronged. In addition to supporting informatics research throughout the UM system and providing doctoral programs in both health informatics and bioinformatics, an outreach initiative is geared toward partnerships and the sharing of computational resources and research expertise with other educational institutions and the tech industry.

Fifteen doctoral students were admitted to the program in the fall, seven in the health informatics track, and eight in bioinformatics.

Bin Pang, one of the first students in program, has been on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Pang had completed his engineering doctorate in China when he heard about a new bioinformatics degree that was to be offered at MU.

“I had read some papers on genomics and protein structuring and sequencing and became very interested in bioinformatics,” said Pang, who believes that the field holds a bright future. “The University of Missouri’s program is very good.”

Offices and lab space for teaching and research are in three locations: the Clinical Support and Education Building, Bond Life Sciences Center, and Engineering Building West, where the College of Engineering’s Center for Computational Biology and Medicine (CCBM) has been established.

MUII’s core faculty members hail from various departments, ranging from animal, biological and computer sciences, to health management and informatics, pathology and anatomical science and physics. Additionally, more than 40 affiliate faculty members from the University system are participating.

Broad informatics applications have led to collaborations with the College of Engineering’s Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department and their healthcare systems research thrust, Shyu said.

“We also work with the Geography Department to establish a new emphasis area in geospatial informatics which has GIS-enabled research components,” he added.

“We appreciate the visionary friends who initiated the planning of the informatics doctoral program almost five years ago. Today, we are fortunate to have many colleagues who share the same vision to move the program forward,” said Shyu.

DNA’s double helix was first proposed in 1953; the first integrated circuit was constructed in 1958; and in 2008 the informatic union of the two have come together as curriculum on the MU campus.