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(Boston, Mass.) — Boston University has been selected to participate in a $40.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative to develop programs that will better prepare students for the wide variety of emerging careers in the rapidly evolving fields of science and engineering. In all, 17 of the nation’s top colleges and universities, chosen from a field of 623 applicants, will take part in the NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program.
“A new pedagogical approach is needed to meet the needs of tomorrow’s Ph.D.s,” explained NSF acting deputy director Joseph Bordogna. “As well as being astute in a discipline, they must also be prepared to address intellectual issues that transcend disciplinary boundaries, since much new knowledge is increasingly created at the interfaces of traditional disciplines. The IGERT investment is an attempt to develop educational models toward this end with a direct focus on the integration of education and research,” he said.
At BU, the grant will support a major new initiative under way in bioinformatics — an emerging field at the intersection of biology and information sciences that crucially underlies advances not only in basic biology, but also in medicine, agriculture, energy, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
“The emergence of biotechnology and the explosion of activity in genetic engineering, including the mapping and sequencing of complete genomes, is generating vast amounts of biological information that hold the key to understanding many of the basic processes of life and development,” said Professor Charles DeLisi, Dean of the College of Engineering and leader of the program. “We need individuals trained both in biological sciences and in computational sciences in order to organize, synthesize, understand, and apply this information.”
The bioinformatics program at BU integrates courses and research in biology with computer modeling and information sciences. It will primarily draw on faculty from three departments — biomedical engineering, chemistry, and biology — and three interdepartmental centers — the Center for BioDynamics, the Center for Computational Science, and the Biomolecular Engineering Research Center. In addition, the program draws on the University’s own resources in massively parallel supercomputing as well as computing resources available to it as a partner in the National Computational Science Alliance.
Students will also participate in seminars at the College of Communication to learn how to work with journalists to communicate complex scientific information. They will also attend a weekly course in the ethical and legal implications of modern biology taught by faculty drawn from the department of sociology and the Schools of Law and Medicine. The program blends a strong research component with practical experience through rotations and internships in industry.
Anticipating the changing demographics of the workforce, the College of Engineering has built in a strong recruitment component with outreach to women, minority students and other underserved populations. In addition, some of the curriculum development workshops in bioinformatics for college teachers, and distance learning programs in bioinformatics will be delivered to undergraduates at minority colleges.
IGERT responds in part to recommendations of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), whose 1995 report, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, advised repairing the “misalignment” between how graduate students are trained and what employers seek. COSEPUP identified communication and teamwork skills, multidisciplinary and applied research experience, and adaptability as essential.
The NSF grant comes just as the University is implementing its strategy to build on its considerable strengths in the biological and biochemical sciences. The department of biology, for example, has added five new faculty members this year and plans to add ten additional faculty over the next five years, expanding its capabilities in the interdisciplinary areas of molecular ecology and evolution, the molecular biology of cell regulation, and neurobiology. At the same time, the chemistry department has been expanding its existing strengths in biochemistry, including DNA footprinting, sequence analysis, molecular mechanisms, and protein folding.
The Boston University College of Engineering, with its state-of-the-art facilities, is a leader in the development and commercialization of technologies that are transforming the nation and the world. The College offers degrees in aero-mechanical; biomedical; electrical, computer, and systems; and manufacturing engineering. It also offers special programs and joint degrees with the School of Management and the School of Medicine.