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"At the time Baylor made the decision to create the program, bioinformatics was really an emerging field," said Dr. Erich Baker, chair and professor of computer science, who joined 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 said.
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 said. "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 said.
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 said. "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 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 said. "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."
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 said. "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 said. "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.