The Department of Computing and Information Science will be working with CALS to parts of the Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology.

Courtesy of the University

The Department of Computing and Information Science will be working with CALS to parts of the Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology.

October 17, 2018

University To Split Biological Statistics and Computational Biology Into Two Departments

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A previous version of this article incorrectly classified Cornell Computing and Information Science as a department that fell under three colleges. It is actually a stand-alone multi-disciplinary unit.

Cornell will divide the current Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences into two separate departments in the 2019-20 academic year in an effort to provide more specialized support to faculty and students.

A new Department of Computational Biology will be housed under both CALS and Cornell Computing and Information Science, which is a multi-disciplinary, college-level unit. The new Department of Statistics and Data Science will be jointly administered by CIS, CALS and the ILR School and will be overseen by one department chair.

The BSCB department, established in 2000, enabled Cornell’s biometry department to hire faculty members with expertise in computational biology, which was a new field at the time, according to Beth Ahner, senior associate dean of the agriculture college.

“In 2000, it wasn’t clear that we could hire directly into biology departments, as we were looking for a non-traditional type of biologist,” Ahner told The Sun. The formation of the BSCB department, according to her, gave rise to “a lot of synergies between statisticians and computational biologists.”

However, the field of computational biology has “exploded” since then and has therefore led to the need for more breadth across the field, one that expands outside of the traditional goals of CALS, Ahner said.

“Genomic data are an ever-present part of our biology research programs and the field now requires so much breadth that we can have a new department, one that is not just in CALS,” she said.

“These changes will result in better coordination of teaching and more centralized support of students associated with both programs,” Ahner continued.

Ahner said that CIS will be funding and overseeing the next hire of the newly created department. The protocol for future hiring decisions will depend on the needs of the department.

“The primary focus of a computational biologist hired by CIS may be different than that of a computational biologist hired by CALS,” she said. “In CALS, we hire faculty to work on questions that are central to our mission; the CIS dean would similarly seek faculty whose work supports the mission and goals of CIS.”

Although the plans for the new departments are in place, the specifics behind the structure and the administrative model are still in the planning process, according to Ahner.

“We have a lot of experience with shared units, so there are a lot of models for how these departments work. We don’t yet have a model for combining so many different colleges,” Ahner said. “As we finalize a model for how these units will work together, the different colleges can invest in them to further their mission.”

The new departments are expected to be in place by spring 2019.

“It is an exciting development for the University; the provost and deans are clearly excited about this moving forward. We are doing our best to make sure that it is sustainable in the long run,” Ahner said.