Carnegie Mellon University
Joint Ph.D. in Computational Biology

MCS Helps Launch Joint Ph.D. in Computational Biology

To meet the growing need for computational biologists, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are launching a joint doctoral program in this emerging field.

The availability of genome databases and the development of new biological data collection approaches have created the need for a new generation of researchers, according to Robert Murphy, co-director of the program and professor of biological sciences at MCS and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology.

These interdisciplinary scientists will develop and use advanced computational and theoretical approaches to analyze and integrate a rapidly increasing amount of biological data.

"The program will be a truly joint effort of the two universities, with roughly equal numbers of faculty and students participating from both campuses," said Mark Kamlet, provost and senior vice president of Carnegie Mellon. "We are especially pleased to have Ivet Bahar and Robert Murphy as co-directors of this program since both have played major leadership roles in building computational biology at the two universities."

Bahar is professor and chairman of the Department of Computational Biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In addition to his MCS and CIT positions, Murphy directs the Center for Bioimage Informatics and is a member of the Center for Automated Learning and Discovery at the School of Computer Science.

Increased funding by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and expanded employment opportunities in the biopharmaceutical and computer industries are compelling reasons to establish the program, according to the co-directors.

"There is an important unmet demand for Ph.D.-level computational biologists, and we are in a position to train the next generation of leaders in this field," said Murphy. "Future leaders in computational biology need a strong foundation in both biomedical and computational sciences that they can draw on, both to recognize important new computational problems in biology and to apply state-of-the-art computational methods to solve them."

Training a new generation of scientists is critical, according to Murphy, because they will have the right combination of skills to investigate problems in biological sciences and identify better ways to diagnose illness or identify potential drug targets. In their work, incoming students will have the opportunity to work alongside computational biologists and clinical collaborators.

Computational biology encompasses a broad set of activities, including molecular modeling, image interpretation, studies of protein interactions and large-scale analysis of genome/proteome data. The field has evolved to analyze and relate the ever-increasing amount of biomedical data generated by high-throughput methods.

"Biomedical researchers are learning that protein networks are so large and complex that only computational analysis can reveal the often subtle changes that cause or contribute  to disease," said Murphy.

Students may choose among five tracks within the new program: Computational Genomics, Computational Structural Biology, Cellular and Systems Modeling, Bioimage Informatics, and Computational Neuroscience.

The joint program is expected to reach a steady enrollment of 50 students working in research groups that cross disciplines, departments and schools at both universities. The new program already has accepted a small number of students for fall 2005 and spring 2006. Full enrollment will begin in fall 2006. The program co-directors expect it to be among the elite programs in the field, given the number of prominent faculty at both institutions and the breadth and depth of their research activities.

The new program leverages this recognized leadership in biomedical research and computer science at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. Since 1987, Carnegie Mellon has offered a formal undergraduate degree program in computational biology. In 1999, it began offering a master's degree in the field. Until now, doctoral students with a focus in computational biology have entered Biological Sciences, Computer Science or a related department. Students at Carnegie Mellon will be supported in part by a $470,000 gift from the DSF Charitable Foundation.

Last year, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine established the Department of Computational Biology, making it one of the first U.S. schools of medicine to assign the discipline the same status as more traditional clinical and basic science departments. The department evolved from the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, which was founded in 2000.