Rensselaer's degree program combines biology and computers. Grants in Action

There's something unusual about this afternoon's biology lesson at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but it's not the lesson itself.

It's the classroom—a spanking new studio in which each student sits before a Silicon Graphics computer equipped with advanced programs for analyzing biological structures. As professor John Salerno displays a presentation from his laptop computer about how genetic sequences evolve, several students quietly twirl molecules on their screens, flicking their eyes from the lecture presentation to their own explorations.

The futuristic classroom is an appropriate setting for a new RPI undergraduate degree program in bioinformatics, the emerging discipline in which researchers use powerful computers to interpret the vast amount of data being generated by the Human Genome Project and other biological undertakings.

Change is in the air at Rensselaer, the nation's oldest technological university, where physicist Shirley Jackson recently became president. Known for its interdisciplinary programs and undergraduate classes that emphasize teamwork and hands-on research, Rensselaer is now applying those techniques to bioinformatics.

RPI admitted the first group of freshmen this fall to its new program, which blends molecular biology with topics such as drug discovery and data analysis. Other undergraduates and graduate students are also taking advantage of the course offerings. In addition, Rensselaer offers workshops and a master's degree in the field for professionals in the pharmaceutical industry and elsewhere. It also is developing "distance learning" courses on bioinformatics for use at historically black colleges and elsewhere.

A $1.6 million, four-year HHMI grant in 1998 helped launch the undergraduate program, which builds on a previous award to RPI that led to the creation of a biosimulation center and other resources. HHMI also supports research opportunities for undergraduates, training workshops for local science teachers and other activities at the campus.

"If we look at the problems that need to be solved and the intellectual questions that need to be answered in the next century, then we need scientists who have this kind of interdisciplinary training," Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, professor of biology and interim dean of science, says about the new bioinformatics program. "Students whose sole training is in molecular biology will be at a disadvantage."

Kerrin Strevell agrees. A junior who previously attended another university and worked for a computer company, she learned about the new major on RPI's Web site. "I was interested immediately," she recalls, "because it seemed to combine all of my interests. My goal was always to get into some type of medical research, and the field of bioinformatics seems to afford many opportunities to do just that."

A growing number of universities offer courses and programs in bioinformatics but RPI is among the first to provide a specific degree path for entering undergraduates. New York's department of education has approved the bachelor's program, which differs from a familiar "double major" in biology and computer science. Instead of enrolling in introductory biology, for example, participants in the new program begin immediately with cell and molecular biology.

"There is some risk in allowing students to specialize so early," acknowledges Chris Bystroff, an expert on protein folding who was recruited by RPI to help implement the program. "On the other hand, people everywhere are learning bioinformatics at an earlier level, and there are so many jobs and scientific opportunities for those with the right expertise."

The program is still gearing up and it remains to be seen how 18- and 19-year olds will respond to the demanding curriculum. Donna Crone, who teaches a molecular biology class, is optimistic. "These are bright kids," she says. "If the program clicks, they'll have a lot of opportunities."

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858