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UW System Board of Regents approves new bioinformatics major at UW-Eau Claire

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Dr. Rahul Gomes, assistant professor of computer science, talks with student researcher Avi Devy Mohan about their research, which is a collaborative project with Mayo Clinic Health System. UW-Eau Claire’s newly approved bioinformatics major will draw on expertise in the university’s biology, computer science and mathematics departments. Available at UW-Eau Claire beginning in fall 2022, it will be the only bioinformatics program of its kind in the UW System.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire soon will have the opportunity to pursue a degree in bioinformatics, a specialty field that is increasingly in demand.

The UW System Board of Regents approved the new major July 9 at its monthly meeting.

The bioinformatics major — an interdisciplinary program that draws on expertise in the university’s biology, computer science and mathematics departments — will be available at UW-Eau Claire beginning in fall 2022. It will be the only bioinformatics program of its kind in the UW System.

“There are very few bioinformatics majors aimed at undergraduate students, so this comprehensive major will help to distinguish UW-Eau Claire within the region and potentially at the national level,” says Dr. Nora Mitchell, assistant professor of biology.

Bioinformatics is the science of storing, extracting, organizing, analyzing, interpreting and using biological information. It incorporates data and analytical approaches from the biological sciences, computer science, data science and mathematics.

UW-Eau Claire’s bioinformatics majors will graduate with the programming and statistical skills they will need to work as data scientists or data analysts. They also will be prepared to pursue graduate studies in bioinformatics or the life sciences.

“Many Blugolds are interested in various aspects of bioinformatics, from the biological, health-related, chemical, data-oriented and computer science perspectives,” Mitchell says. “We are excited to build an interdisciplinary major in a way that will strengthen student understanding of bioinformatics as a STEM discipline as well as in the greater context of their liberal education.”

Bioinformatics: A growing field

The field of bioinformatics grew out of the need to organize and analyze the increasingly large amounts of biological data being generated. Since bioinformatics analyses are increasingly necessary to address many biological questions, the demand for bioinformaticians is rapidly growing.

For example, bioinformaticians may be needed for the elucidation of basic molecular/genetic mechanisms, the discovery of targets for drug discovery, the study of structural and functional relationships, and molecular evolution. Bioinformaticians with skills in computer science or mathematics also may help develop new algorithms and new approaches to data analysis.

“The need for bioinformatics is now greater than ever,” says Dr. Rahul Gomes, assistant professor of computer science. “As modern technology enables us to collect more and more clinical as well as biological data, we require experts who are not only capable of processing the data to gain information but do so in the most optimized fashion to enable a faster and more accurate response. That’s what our future bioinformatics graduates will be able to do.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a need for more computer and information research scientists, data scientists and software developers in bioinformatics. While the BLS projects a more than 30% increase in demand in these fields by 2029, there are few bioinformatics academic programs nationwide, especially in the upper Midwest.

UW-Eau Claire’s new 120-credit program, which will be housed in the mathematics department, will require students to complete the university’s liberal education core classes as well as coursework in biology, chemistry, computer science and mathematics.

As a result, UW-Eau Claire bioinformatics graduates will be well prepared to pursue a variety of different career paths, Mitchell says.

“This new bioinformatics major will empower students to learn the skills necessary for jobs in industry and academia using cutting-edge computational tools to solve problems and answer questions using large amounts of biological data,” Mitchell says. “Employers are looking for individuals who can implement the current tools, understand the ‘why’ of using them and be ready to adopt novel technologies as they emerge.”

High interest among Blugolds

There is an increasing number of Blugolds interested in the biological sciences who also have a high aptitude in mathematics, statistics and programming.

The new bioinformatics program will give these students a structure to develop their programming and statistical skills, while developing knowledge in the life sciences. Since courses will be within the departments of biology, computer science and mathematics, they will connect with faculty experts who also can mentor them in research and career planning.

Given the increased demand for professionals qualified to work in biometrics-related occupations, coupled with the low number of academic programs available regionally and nationwide, UW-Eau Claire administrators and faculty expect that its program and graduates will be in high demand.

The university estimates that within five years, nearly 60 students will be enrolled in the bioinformatics program and more than 20 students will have earned bioinformatics degrees.

UW-Eau Claire’s comprehensive major is designed to meet the needs of students with various career interests. Examples include:

  • Future biologists who are interested in areas such as molecular biology, genetics and evolutionary biology, and who aspire to be involved in research.
  • Future computer scientists with interest in information technologies, who have an interest in developing and maintaining software used in molecular biology, genetics and evolutionary biology.
  • Future mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists with interest in using statistical techniques to analyze datasets encountered in molecular biology, genetics and evolutionary biology.

High-impact experiences

UW-Eau Claire’s bioinformatics program’s design will allow students to complete their degree in a timely manner, but also have opportunities to participate in high-impact practices such as student-faculty research and presenting at national research conferences.

“Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary program that involves biology, computer science and mathematics — especially statistics,” says Dr. Alex Smith, professor of mathematics and chair of the mathematics department. “Students with interest in any of these three disciplines and who aspire to apply data science techniques to large biological data sets will find many undergraduate research opportunities in the bioinformatics program.”

UW-Eau Claire’s research agreement with Mayo Clinic Health System will ensure students have many opportunities through the bioinformatics program.

Smith says faculty and students in the three departments already conduct bioinformatics-related research with Mayo Clinic Health System partners. With financial support from UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, students and faculty have completed research in bioinformatics-related areas such as analyzing a large gene family involved in selective protein degradation in land plants and algae, and distinguishing closely related ancestral populations via linear discriminant analysis on genetic data.

Smith expects the number of students engaging in those kinds of research projects to increase once the new major is in place.

Bioinformatics majors also will use UW-Eau Claire’s high performance computing infrastructure to analyze massive amounts of biological datasets, Gomes says. Having access to that kind of technology as an undergraduate student is an unusual but incredibly valuable learning opportunity, he says.

“This will promote a research environment that utilizes the power of collaboration with health experts at Mayo Clinic Health System,” Gomes says. “Already, four students are collaborating with UW-Eau Claire faculty and Mayo Clinic Health System clinicians on two projects investigating the use of artificial intelligence to analyze CT scans. They are exploring avenues of deep learning, image and genomic data processing, all of which include concepts of biology, computer science and mathematics.”

A leader in health sciences

In addition to the research collaboration with Mayo Clinic, UW-Eau Claire has taken other steps to establish itself as a regional and national leader in the health sciences.

In 2017, UW-Eau Claire established the Institute for Health Sciences, which promotes multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations in the areas of curriculum, research, scholarship and service. It also is charged with developing and strengthening links with regional health care providers.

Students in the bioinformatics program will have skills and knowledge related to biology and data science, so they will benefit from the connections HSI has established with regional health care providers.

Also in 2017, the university founded the UW-Eau Claire William J. and Marian A. Klish Health Careers Center, which provides students with relevant graduate/professional school advising as well as information and advising on career opportunities in a variety of health science fields.

As they consider graduate schools or career paths, graduates of the bioinformatics program will benefit from Klish Health Career Center resources.