By Mary Alice Casey
An Ohio University-led proposal aimed at positioning the state as a national leader in the emerging field of bioinformatics is among seven to earn funding in the first round of the new Choose Ohio First Scholarship Program.
The Ohio Board of Regents today announced that the Ohio Consortium for Bioinformatics will receive $4.475 million for student scholarships under the program. The seven successful proposals announced today -- of 28 submitted -- will receive more than $22.7 million for student scholarships in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical (STEM) fields.
Ohio University will partner with 11 other colleges and universities and the Ohio Supercomputer Center, the Ralph Regula School of Computational Science and industry leaders to attract and graduate an estimated 345 students in STEM fields over a five-year period. Partners in the consortium will contribute more than $4.6 million to develop programs, expand offerings and cover other related costs.
Bioinformatics is the field of science in which biology, computer science and information technology merge to form a single discipline that relies on high-performance computing to analyze large amounts of data. It can assist in efforts as diverse as finding cures for diseases, making advances in agriculture and enhancing industrial opportunities.
One of the fastest-growing areas in science, the need for bioinformatics has been driven by the vast amount of data that now can be generated by such technologies as DNA sequencing.
Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis welcomed today's announcement.
"Our state leaders are strategically investing resources in areas of growth for our state," he said. "With only seven proposals receiving funding in the first round, I am very pleased that Ohio University has received support for this proposal.
"The reviewers clearly understand that our Bioinformatics Consortium is a program that will move Ohio forward," McDavis added. "This consortium will create important opportunities for students in our state as we work with other institutions and industry leaders for the future of Ohio."
Lonnie Welch, Ohio University's Stuckey Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has been working for several years to bring bioinformatics experts across the state together. He and Ohio University alumnus Terry Lewis of the Ohio Supercomputer Center organized the first Ohio Collaborative Bioinformatics Conference, held on the Athens campus in 2006.
With the funding announced today, Welch envisions the state taking a leadership role in a field that has the potential to help society in endless ways and create thousands of jobs across Ohio.
"I've seen the expertise we have around the state of Ohio in this field," Welch said. "By pulling together that expertise, we can form a very strong entity that covers all the areas of bioinformatics. Each of us complements what the other is doing. That's going to be unique in the nation.
"It's really going to energize the community that we're building," Welch added of the Choose Ohio First funding. "I believe that after this five-year program that we're just beginning, we will be among the top five states in the nation in this field."
Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology Sarah Wyatt co-leads Ohio University's bioinformatics efforts with Welch and serves on the Ohio Consortium for Bioinformatics steering committee. Both are members of Ohio University's biomedical engineering faculty.
She said about a dozen faculty members in such disciplines as computer science, biomedical engineering, plant biology, biological sciences, biochemistry and medicine are working on bioinformatics-related research. Wyatt expects that number to grow dramatically with approval of the Choose Ohio First proposal -- as will opportunities for students.
"This will give students an opportunity to interact not just on their own campus, but with their colleagues across the state," Wyatt said, noting the new level of cooperation the consortium will produce. "We will work with industries throughout the state to make sure students are trained in the way industry wants them to be trained to join the workforce."
In recent years, Welch and Wyatt have collaborated in the creation of three new Ohio University courses in bioinformatics, one of which they co-teach. They are seeking approval of a certificate program in the field that they hope will launch in the fall. Currently, students seeking a bachelor's degree in computer science can specialize in bioinformatics.
"This is going to empower our degree programs for students and also the research that depends on bioinformatics," Welch said.
Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl commended Welch and Wyatt for their work on the Choose Ohio First funding request.
"Their proposal gives Ohio University students and faculty the chance to take the lead in a field that offers unlimited prospects for scientific and technological advancement," she said. "Our participation has not only netted financial assistance for students who wish to pursue bioinformatics, but it also generated a number of excellent ideas from our faculty on how to help the state advance in STEM areas."
The $50 million Choose Ohio First Scholarship program is a component of the Ohio Innovation Partnership created by the Ohio General Assembly to help make Ohio a global leader in the new economy. The funding is aimed at attracting and graduating more than 2,000 students in STEM fields over the next five years.
The state announced that a second round of the Choose Ohio First competition to award the remaining $27.3 million is now under way. The bioinformatics proposal was one of four the university submitted in the first round.
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