October 16, 2003

Cornell Hosts Biology Workshop

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Biology professors from colleges and universities from across New York State made their way to Cornell this past weekend for a four-day workshop designed to bolster undergraduate education in the rapidly developing field of bioinformatics.

The workshop, entitled “Bioinformatics in Biology Education: Working with Sequence, Structure and Function,” aimed to provide professors and students with the tools necessary to take advantage of resources and data that are becoming increasingly available through public sources such as the Internet.

“We aim to put the most powerful tools available into the hands of students,” said John Jungck, principle investigator for the program and Mead Chair of the Sciences at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

Workshop attendees piled into the Cornell Theory Center in Rhodes Hall to hear a dozen lecturers speak on a variety of bioinformatics topics.

While the realm of bioinformatics is expanding to include many different fields, this weekend’s workshop focused primarily on phylogeny, which is the genetic relationship between organisms, and population evolution.

“I view bioinformatics as the triangulation of biology, evolution and information science. It’s very interdisciplinary from the get go,” Jungck said.

Bioinformatics includes a wide range of applications in disparate arenas such as drug design, conservation and forensics, according to Jungck. “Perhaps you want to look at extinction conservation for endangered species or maybe you want to know if your can of tuna contains whale meat. Bioinformatics gives you the tools to do that,” Jungck said.

Jungck hopes to get these tools into the hands of students by addressing their professors and answering their questions.

“I’m a new assistant professor at Vassar College and I’ll be teaching classes on the human genome, genetics and bioinformatics next semester. I don’t know a lot about phylogeny so I thought this would be a good chance to expand my understanding,” said workshop attendee Kam Dahlquist.

Bioinformatics, like any other science, is not simply answers. According to Jungck, a central problem in the field and in biology in general is the understanding of complex systems and networks of genes.

“One of the biggest problems is understanding the complex interactions between genes and the web of gene expression. We need to get a better idea about both the fragility and robustness of such highly connected systems,” Jungck said.

For example, conditions like cancer and obesity cannot be attributed to the vagaries of a single gene. These conditions originate from a combination of genetic, molecular and environmental dysfunction, thus complicating our understanding, according to Jungck.

Jungck hopes that by putting today’s best tools into the hands of tomorrow’s scientists, these complications can be deciphered.

The workshop was part of a three-year program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program, Bioinformatics Education Dissemination: Reaching Out, Connecting and Knitting-together (BEDROCK), is a series of eighteen workshops aimed at undergraduate biology instruction. The workshop at Cornell is the seventh in the series.

“Wherever we have a workshop, we always try to take advantage of the local resources and at Cornell that means genomics and supercomputing,” Jungck said.

Archived article by Philip Lane