The Diplomat begins an occasional series on new tenure-track faculty. This is the first in the series.
In her lab, Jaime E. Blair shows off petri dishes caked in red and beige goo, the work of her students.
“This is my first full-time teaching experience,” she said. “My first semester has been incredibly rewarding, watching my students’ progress as they learn complicated concepts, break them down and then teach them to each other.”
Blair is Franklin & Marshall College’s newest assistant professor of biology and the heart of the College’s fledgling bioinformatics program.
Earlier this year, Franklin & Marshall College received a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help the College establish a new major in bioinformatics, a field that combines biology, computer science and mathematics to investigate data-rich areas of science, particularly in the field of genetics.
“There are hundreds of complete genome sequences available, each millions of basepairs in size, so we use bioinformatics to compare all those sequences to one another,” Blair explained.
“Then we identify particular areas of the genome we’re interested in. In my case we focus on pathogen evolution,” she said. The College also received a $164,933 grant through Pennsylvania’s Keystone Innovation Starter Kit initiative to bring Blair to Franklin & Marshall College to help build a program in bioinformatics.
Blair has spent her first semester here setting up her lab and teaching classes.
Her research focuses on the evolution of eukaryotes (organisms whose cells are organized into complex structures enclosed within membranes, i.e., humans, animals and fungi), and more particularly on fungal-like single-celled organisms called oomycetes. It is a pathogen also known as water mold.
She works with two students interning in her lab this semester. Samantha Schneider ’09 is generating molecular sequence data, while Jack Pike ’09 is analyzing three different sets of genomic sequences.
“Both have made excellent progress in three short months,” Blair reported. “I am eager to recruit students into my lab this summer so they can begin their own exciting journey of independent research.”
Dick Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and the Dr. E. Paul & Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biology, said the addition of Blair to the faculty strengthens the College and will help to make it a leader in the field of bioinformatics.
“With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the leadership of Jaime Blair, Franklin & Marshall will develop an outstanding bioinformatics program that will serve as a model for other liberal arts colleges,” Fluck said.
“Jaime’s strengths in genomics and bioinformatics, particularly as they apply to plant pathogens, will complement our strengths in proteomics and medical genomics as we build a program that will cross-train students in biology, mathematics and computer science,” he said.
Blair grew up in New Hampshire and earned her undergraduate degree from Ithaca College in New York, where she studied biology and anthropology.
“I knew once I started working in a biology lab that I wanted to become a professor and mentor at a small liberal arts college,” Blair said.
She received her Ph.D. in biology and astrobiology from Pennsylvania State University.
Astrobiology studies the origin of life on Earth and examines the possible conditions elsewhere in the universe that may be conducive to life. Blair lamented that the field is in a state of flux, as NASA has significantly reduced funding for astrobiological study.
She has held two post-doctoral positions. The first was for a year at Penn State in the Department of Plant Pathology. After that, she worked for two years at Amherst College in
Massachusetts as a Bioinformatics Postdoctoral Fellow.
Her husband, Jorge Mena-Ali, is a research associate in the Biology Department at F&M. Next semester, he will be a visiting assistant professor of biology.