HHMI Grant to Help Launch Bioinformatics Program

“Elation” is how Richard Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and Dr. E. Paul & Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biology, described his reaction to the news that Franklin & Marshall College was selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to receive a highly competitive $1.3 million grant.

Franklin & Marshall was one of 48 undergraduate institutions in the country to receive an award from HHMI, which last year issued a challenge to 224 undergraduate colleges nationwide to identify creative new ways to engage students in the biological sciences.

At Franklin & Marshall, the HHMI grant will fund a new major in bioinformatics, a field that combines biology, computer science and mathematics to investigate data-rich areas in the sciences, particularly in the field of genetics. 

The grant will also enhance the college’s collaboration with the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pa., which treats and researches genetic and metabolic disorders among the Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities. Finally, the grant will help the college reach out to high school teachers, introducing them to the new bioinformatics field.

Kathleen Triman, professor of biology, was equally thrilled with the grant news. Triman, who helped prepare the proposal, spoke enthusiastically about the possibilities of bioinformatic research.

“Depending on how you design your search, you can look for particular gene sequences, shapes of molecules, and more,” Triman said. “Analysis of the volume of data coming out of the Human Genome Project, for example, requires sophisticated computer-based approaches.”

HHMI funding will allow Franklin & Marshall to support research and retrain faculty, and to infuse current biology, chemistry, and computer science courses with new cross-disciplinary perspectives.

The grant comes on the heels of other related good news—the recent award of $164,000 from the state to hire a genomicist on the faculty who will work in bioinformatics and with students on research.

This research will include strengthening the collaboration between the College and the Clinic for Special Children. Already students are investigating whether a nutritional supplement can ameliorate the effects of a devastating genetic mutation among Amish and Old Order Mennonite children.

“The staff at the clinic are pioneering new approaches in the analysis of genetic data,” said Triman, “These approaches involve very sophisticated tools and technology.”

Because the clinic deals with a specific population whose family inheritance patterns are well known, researchers have been able to gather genetic data on more than 80 different metabolic disorders. The potential for both basic research, which expands knowledge and understanding, and applied research, which solves specific problems, is enormous, Triman said.

The collaboration with the clinic illustrates the changing scientific landscape where computer science, mathematics, and genetics are rapidly converging. It also illustrates the need for colleges to prepare biology students for the interdisciplinary world of science, Fluck said.

The grant is the final element in what Fluck describes as “a perfect academic storm” at the College— the new Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building, a new commitment to bioinformatics throughout the science curriculum, and a new effort to raise science literacy, both on campus and off.

With the HHMI funding, F&M will hire two new bioinformatics faculty members, one in biology and one in computer science. Even nonscientists will get a taste of bioinformatics in new general-education courses aimed at putting this scientific revolution in a broader intellectual context.

The grant will also allow the College to build a computer science major, because that is such a large component of bioinformatics study.

Fluck envisions a four-year process, at the end of which he predicts “a robust program in bioinformatics, a freestanding computer science department and up-to-date research opportunities for students.”

As Franklin & Marshall gains experts and expertise, it will also introduce bioinformatics to science teachers from Pennsylvania’s educational special-needs and enrichment district for Lancaster County. Workshops and on-campus lab experiences will prepare teachers to spread the message that today’s sixth graders are tomorrow’s interdisciplinary scientists.

The interaction with local science teachers will be coordinated with Ellie Rice, adjunct assistant professor of biology.

“It was very competitive,” said Triman of the grant process. She attributed Franklin & Marshall’s success, in part, to the College’s excellent reputation for collaborative research with undergraduates and to a “longstanding history of students who are admitted to outstanding postgraduate programs and who go on to successful careers in the sciences.”

Fluck also described the grant as “quite a coup” that builds on Franklin & Marshall’s already fine reputation in the sciences, particularly in pre-med studies.

HHMI is the nation’s largest private supporter of science education, having invested more than $1.2 billion in grants to reinvigorate life science education in both research universities and liberal arts colleges and to engage the nation’s leading scientists in teaching.

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