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Beginning next year, graduate students studying computational molecular biology will be able to officially work toward a Ph.D. in the field. The new program, created by the Center for Computational Molecular Biology, draws from four disciplines: ecology and evolutionary biology, applied mathematics, computer science and biology.

Since its founding in 2003, the CCMB has been working to make the program a reality. The Corporation approved the initiative last May, according to a press release, and its first participants will start next fall.

The program's curriculum will be "integrated across (the four) departments," said Sorin Istrail, professor of computer science and director of the CCMB.

Students will focus on genomics, Istrail said, "using biology (and) computational methods to create models, understand life sciences, transform knowledge and validate conjectures."

Forming the program was no easy task given the number of departments involved, Istrail said. Getting them to agree took some work, he said, adding, "We had to fight intellectually with them."

But the work was worth it, he said, and it brings to Brown a "true hybrid world-class program in the new era." The interdisciplinary approach — which students will experience from the start — will "create scientists and professors in the future that are world experts in this area," he said.

The program will start out small, with just three or four students each year, Istrail said. These students are expected to "be strong in both biological and computer sciences," he said, but program participants will still have the chance to improve in the areas in which they might not be as strong. "We will look at their undergraduate background as a model of how they need to be prepared," he said.

Besides conducting research projects on genomics, the program will also strengthen undergraduate education, with Ph.D. students working as TAs in undergraduate classes, Istrail said.

Undergraduates will have the chance to participate in the program, too, researching with graduate students and faculty, he said.

Along with the seven faculty members who are already working with the center, five new professors will join specifically for the new program.

So far, four of the five positions have been filled. Istrail is joined by Professor of Applied Mathematics Charles Lawrence, Professor of Computer Science Ben Raphael  and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Daniel Weinreich.

"The University gives high priority to the program," said Istrail, citing the research and study space given to the program on the second floor of the Thomas J. Watson, Sr., Center for Information Technology.

Funding policies for the program's Ph.D. candidates will be similar to other University's graduate programs, with fellowships funded by the Graduate School in the first year and grants earned by professors in subsequent years, he said.

Istrail's enthusiasm for the initiative is shared by the program's other professors.
"The promise of this program is one of the reasons I came to this school," said Raphael. "For graduate education, a dedicated Ph.D. program is very important." Raphael will teach some of the specialized computational biology courses in the program.

Until now, there has been no formal program on computational biology within ecology and evolutionary biology, Weinreich said. Knowledge gained by studying computational biology will give "an important intellectual framework" to ecology and evolutionary biology and "put the problems in evolutionary context" — exploring "how different genomes or organisms are historically related," he said.

"This is an exciting opportunity (for Ph.D. students) to gain exposure to diverse disciplines," Weinreich added.

"It's great. I'm interested from an environmental standpoint," said Sarah Rosengard '11, an environmental sciences concentrator, adding that the research in computational biology plays an important role in determining the "future distribution of species and understanding natural changes."

"I'm interested in knowing where (the program) goes," Rosengard said.
 




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