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Robert Jernigan, Laurence H. Baker Center for Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics, (515) 294-3833
Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778


AMES, Iowa -- This summer, 10 students from universities throughout the United States are at Iowa State University, learning the skills they need to tackle the burgeoning field of bioinformatics.

The students are attending the 10-week National Science Foundation-National Institutes of Health Summer Institute in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, held through Aug. 8.

"Bioinformatics and biological statistics give scientists the tools to sift and mine massive amounts of information from plant and animal genomics," said Robert Jernigan, director of the Laurence H. Baker Center of Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics at Iowa State.

"However, biological data is accumulating faster than it can be processed and comprehended," he said.

"There's a real need for more trained scientists who can shorten the time between biological data acquisition and practical application," Jernigan said. "The summer institute will encourage more students to develop research careers in bioinformatics."

The institute provides students majoring in the biological sciences, computer sciences, engineering, mathematics and physical sciences with interdisciplinary bioinformatics research and education experiences.

Iowa State was one of nine schools selected by NSF and NIH's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to conduct summer institutes in bioengineering and bioinformatics.

The Laurence H. Baker Center of Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics, a center of ISU's Plant Sciences Institute, received the $645,000 grant to conduct the summer institute for four years. Ten ISU faculty, led by Volker Brendel, professor of zoology and genetics, organized the institute.

Lori Kroiss is a first-year doctoral student in plant pathology at Pennsylvania State University, State College. She is working with Brendel.

"I needed to do a research project that's outside of my lab experience in functional genetics. I've had the opportunity here to work in comparative genomics," she said. "I like the low pressure environment and being able to apply something we learn right away in the lab.

"Just being around computer people all the time, instead of molecular biologists, has been very helpful for me. Now I have the vocabulary to find the people who can help me do my Ph.D. project at Penn State," she said.

Institute students are working with 10 Iowa State faculty and their groups on specialized research projects to learn in depth a specific area of integrated bioinformatics and computational biology.

Charles Wang, a junior in electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, Durham, N.C., said he came to the institute to have a research experience prior to graduate school.

He is working with Srinivas Aluru, Iowa State professor of computer engineering, on clustering gene expression data from microarray experiments. Microarrays are used to measure the level of expression of tens of thousands of genes simultaneously in a single experiment. Clustering methods are used to find genes that potentially have related functions.

Aluru and Wang are applying a technique developed in computer science more than 20 years ago to a widely used clustering algorithm to process data faster.

The students will present their research in a poster session on Aug. 7.

An intensive, two-week instructional program initiated the institute. The short course introduced fundamental methods in bioinformatics and computational biology, described applications to prominent research problems and discussed recent accomplishments in genomics and bioinformatics.

Industry researchers and faculty from other universities and colleges attended the short course, along with the summer institute students.

"We hadn't anticipated so many faculty from other schools would be interested in the short course. But they're doing research and setting up programs outside of their own fields of study," Jernigan said. "These computational approaches are invading all parts of biology."

The Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University is dedicated to becoming one of the world's leading plant science research institutes. More than 200 faculty from the College of Agriculture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the College of Engineering conduct research in nine centers of the institute. They seek fundamental knowledge about plant systems to help feed the growing world population, strengthen human health and nutrition, improve crop quality and yield, foster environmental sustainability and expand the uses of plants for biobased products and bioenergy. The Plant Sciences Institute supports the training of students for exciting career opportunities and promotes new technologies to aid in the economic development of agriculture and industry throughout the state. The institute is supported through public and private funding.


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