What did the computational scientist say to the biomedical researcher? Not much, unless the two share some common knowledge and language.
As big data becomes central to biomedical research, more scientists—from both fields—are recognizing the need for those who do the data analysis to be able to speak the same language as those who conduct the laboratory research. To assist in this cross-training, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) has recently awarded large grants to four institutions, including Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.
“You can do all sorts of cool computational stuff, but until you can solve an important biological problem, it’s just game playing,” says Scott Williams, PhD, a professor of genetics at Geisel and a population geneticist and international expert in the genetics of health disparities. In his leadership roles at Dartmouth’s Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences (iQBS), he works closely with faculty and students to promote interdisciplinary research and education.
Williams and his colleague Carmen Marsit, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, are co-directors of the $2.5-million BWF training grant. Marsit’s own research is interdisciplinary, too, as he uses biomarkers and genetic data to study the epidemiology of cancers and other diseases.
The BWF grant will support Geisel’s new Big Data in the Life Sciences training program, which will be available to select PhD students enrolled in the Quantitative Biomedical Sciences (QBS) program. Launched in 2011, the QBS program is already distinguished nationally for its intensive multidisciplinary coursework in biostatistics, bioinformatics, and molecular epidemiology.
The Big Data in the Life Sciences track will offer additional, integrated training in the quantitative, population, and basic biomedical sciences, and require courses on the principles of physiology, biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology. Students in the new track will also complete a rotation in a biomedical laboratory to aid in their understanding of laboratory science concepts, designs, and limitations.
“With this grant, Dartmouth’s existing strength in quantitative biology is being further integrated with—and extending the reach of—its basic science laboratories,” says Victoria McGovern, PhD, senior program officer at BWF. “This is going to give PhD students a chance to make outsized contributions to the world’s understanding of big, big problems.”
The goal is to fully integrate quantitative and basic biomedical scientists, say Marsit and Williams, facilitating stronger collaborations in order to maximize the potential of big data to improve human health.
“With this additional training, they’re going to be able to communicate better with their collaborators in the basic sciences and move projects forward more quickly,” says Marsit.
“You don’t solve important problems by being insular,” says Williams. “You have to be able to communicate effectively across disciplines.”