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Mastering Bioinformatics
In 1998, a Baylor student approached Dr. Greg Speegle with the notion of a double major in molecular biology and computer science.

"There was no way to do it at the time," says Speegle, professor of computer science. "The notion of bioinformatics was just starting, mainly because of the Human Genome Project, and we had never heard of an undergraduate program in the field."

Bioinformatics is the intersection of computer science, life science, mathematics and statistics.

Speegle called on Dr. Chris Kearney, associate professor of biology, to see if there was a way to accommodate the student's request.

"Right away we realized that neither of us knew enough about the other's field and what they were doing," Speegle says. "My last biology class was when I was in the ninth grade."

"And the only thing I knew about computers was from my own computer," Kearney adds.

Once they started talking, they began to uncover how much each of their fields had to offer the other. Their discussions became the first step for Baylor's development of an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics.

Growth in Baylor Bioinformatics

"At the time Baylor made the decision to create the program, bioinformatics was really an emerging field," says Dr. Erich Baker, who joined the Baylor ECS in 2002 as an assistant professor of bioinformatics. "It was mostly seen as a graduate degree program."

Baylor became the second university in the nation to offer bioinformatics as an undergraduate degree. (The first was Carnegie Mellon University, which now offers an undergraduate degree in computational biology.)

"Because the idea of an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics was so new, we had a lot of discussion about what to include in the program," Baker says.

Professors and advisors from the life sciences, mathematics and computer science were involved in the decision-making.

"What was created is an exhaustive curriculum, with no electives," Baker says. "It's essentially a double major in biology and computer science with a minor in chemistry."

The curriculum they developed is now the standard, nationwide, for other universities that are creating bioinformatics undergraduate programs.

"We're very proud of the fact that our program gives students the full experience of both majors, and that other institutions recognize that value and use our program as a model," Baker says.

Initially, the mission of the program was to give students a wide background in a variety of areas: informatics (database design, web interfaces, data warehousing, distributed systems, security and library science); computational science (mathematics, statistics, algorithms, computer science, modeling, imaging and High-Performance Computing); and life science (genetics, physiology, embryology, immunology, developmental biology, medicine, epidemiology, pharmacology, psychiatry, veterinary medicine, ecology, forensics, anthropology and agriculture). Later additions included gene and genome product sequencing and structure analysis.

"Our goal is to produce students competent in those areas," Baker says. "We want them to know enough computer science to know what is computable, and enough life science to know what needs to be computed."

The Human Genome Project

The Human Genome Project is the perfect example of the application of the study. When biologists first began investigating genes at a molecular level, there was no viable way to manage the data being collected. By the 1980s, when the project of mapping the entire human genome really got under way, biologists turned to computer scientists to make the project a reality.

"The Human Genome Project knit things together," Kearney says. "You have all that data to manage, and you need to find a way to go back and access it so problems can be solved more easily. Biologists needed to become tech savvy."

Outstanding Employment Prospects

The computer science field needed to learn more about biology.

"We needed to learn some biology, so we could understand how to get the information they were interested in," he says. "And that's how bioinformatics bridges that gap. Suddenly we have people who can do both."

And, people who can do both, Baker says, are in high demand.

After "What is bioinformatics?" the question Baker most often hears is from prospective students and their parents, "Can I get a job with this major?"

"That isn't a problem in this field," he says. "Our students are highly recruited, not only in industry but to advanced degrees."

Of the students leaving Baylor with an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics, nearly 75 percent complete a graduate degree (mainly in bioinformatics) and 60 percent go beyond to PhDs or medical degrees.