Bioinformatics Alliance promotes life sciences

A new alliance headed by a Penn computer scientist seeks to promote life science research in greater Philadelphia by spreading knowledge of bioinformatics.

Bioinformatics is the use of computing technology to analyze the massive amounts of data generated by today’s biological experiments. The Bioinformatics Alliance, comprised of Penn and 10 other area non-profit education and research institutions, has been set up to train current and future life scientists in its techniques.

According to the alliance’s co-director, Professor of Computer and Information Science Susan Davidson, life sciences research is much larger and more complex today than in even the recent past. Where individual scientists once noted observations on index cards, large-scale undertakings like the Human Genome Project now involve teams of researchers and massive computing power.

The alliance, which was officially launched over the summer, pools its members’ resources to promote the exchange of ideas, students and courses among them. It also seeks to improve the ties between academe and industry by helping train those in the workforce.

“ A Ph.D. in biology or genetics who doesn’t have computer science [skills] can come in and take one of [our] short courses,” Davidson said. “We also sponsor students for paid internships at local employers.”

So far, the alliance has held one short course, on microarray analysis, at Penn and Drexel; a second mini-course on databases will be offered at the same campuses Oct. 7 and 8. One mini-course will be offered each month at one of the participating schools. The first class of interns began their assignments in August, a second class will be selected in November, and a third in January or February.

Davidson described the alliance’s ultimate goal as strengthening Philadelphia’s position as a hub for bioscience. “Philadelphia has the second highest concentration of life science jobs in the country.”

Initial funding for the alliance comes from BioAdvance, a nonprofit organization with ties to the life sciences industry that is also responsible for distributing Pennsylvania’s share of tobacco settlement money. The group is seeking additional state funds and National Institutes of Health grants for expansion.

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Originally published on October 2, 2003