Partnerships, Curriculum Development Drive Bioinformatics Toward Major

  • Dick Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and Dr. E. Paul and Frances Reiff Professor of Biology
  • Erik Puffenberger, Clinic for Special Children laboratory director

The evolution of Franklin & Marshall's bioinformatics program over the past year has included new faculty appointments, curriculum development and external partnerships. But the best way of thinking about it might be to envision the first few seconds of a space shuttle mission, according to Dick Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and Dr. E. Paul and Frances Reiff Professor of Biology.

As the solid rocket boosters unleash millions of pounds of thrust at liftoff, the shuttle rises slowly for the first 10 seconds before rapidly accelerating toward space.

"That's where I felt we were, like a rocket just about to go," says Fluck, director of the bioinformatics program. "You could see things happening with faculty, students and partnerships. You could just sense this was taking off."

Bioinformatics, the computer-based analysis of biological data sets, is an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of biology, computer science and applied mathematics. The College unveiled its bioinformatics program last year following a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The program provides paid opportunities for students to perform research with faculty members across the fields of genomics, proteomics and medicine. A formal proposal for a major in bioinformatics will be submitted next fall, Fluck says.

To secure funding from the HHMI, the College developed a plan with four components: student research, faculty development, curriculum development and precollege outreach. The College launched a new course in genomics, added bioinformatics modules to eight other courses and recruited several new faculty members.

"Increasingly, new faculty will come to the College with training in bioinformatics," Fluck says. "It's an attractive thing for new faculty to see that we have these opportunities for students."

The HHMI grant has allowed the College to expand its collaboration with the Clinic for Special Children, a nonprofit medical and diagnostic service founded by Holmes Morton, M.D., for Lancaster County children who have inherited metabolic disorders. The grant also allowed the College to create a series of workshops in which F&M faculty members share expertise in bioinformatics with local high school teachers, courtesy of a new partnership with Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13.

The clinic serves as a valuable off-site resource to train students in bioinformatics, according to Erik Puffenberger, the clinic's laboratory director. Students who are selected to work at the clinic perform research alongside medical professionals, gaining real-world experience.

"F&M is somewhat unique in having this collaboration, because students have access to patient care," says Puffenberger, who uses bioinformatics in his laboratory daily. "We're very excited by this collaboration. We hope it provides students experience with clinical medicine and bioinformatics in an applicable and meaningful way."

As the College moves toward a major in bioinformatics, Puffenberger sees even greater opportunities for students.

"This will be the new paradigm for medicine in the future," he says. "I could never imagine doing this 10 years ago. Technology has advanced so rapidly that I can't even fathom what we'll be doing in 10 or 20 years."

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