By Mike Williams, Rice News Staff
October 7, 2009
Before there was a World Wide Web, Tony Gorry anticipated the flood of medical information to come and the need to channel it in new and useful ways.
Now, Rice's Friedkin Professor of Management and professor of computer science is riding a wave with the ongoing support of the federal government's National Library of Medicine (NLM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The W.M. Keck Center's Biomedical Informatics training program, of which Gorry is co-director, has been awarded more than $1 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). This is above and beyond the center's regular NIH funding. Part of the Gulf Coast Consortia, the Keck Center focuses on interinstitutional training activities.
The NLM award is among nearly $20 million Rice has harvested in ARRA grants since the Obama administration program began earlier this year. That includes $11 million for the Brockman Hall for Physics, now under construction.
The new funds expand the 18-year-old Keck Center initiative with NLM to train graduate and postdoctoral students in biomedical informatics, which combines mathematics, computer science and biology. Bioinformatics brings the power of creative mathematics and high-performance computing to translational medicine, public health, biosecurity, applied nanotechnology and biomedical engineering.
The program that already had 14 slots for students has expanded to 24, bringing seven predoctoral and three postdoctoral trainees aboard to tackle all kinds of thorny issues in the realm of translational medicine. The highly competitive grants support students for two years.
The new recruits are drawn from the Gulf Coast Consortia's six member institutions, which include Rice, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Gorry has watched the field of bioinformatics grow at a remarkable rate over the past two decades -- and not merely as an interested bystander. "When a handful of us, including Kathy Matthews from Rice and Wah Chiu from Baylor, began thinking about this initiative, most of what was called bioinformatics was in applications for computers in hospitals," he said. "We committed ourselves to the integration of training in fundamental biology with training in mathematics and computer science. It was a risky grant proposal, but it won -- and it has since proved to be a foundation of the Keck Center. I think it's commonly accepted that there is seldom biology without computation today."
Internet access to research repositories and advances in molecular biology have helped make bioinformatics a hot field, Gorry said. In the recent round of funding, he said, "the emphasis tilted toward applications. This supplement grant lets us train people who will take everything that's been learned and bring it into the health care system to make what I hope will be radical change."
Rice doctoral student Deepa Ramachandran has taken up the challenge, using her training to develop a mathematical model of human cardiopulmonary dynamics.
"It's basically to gain a better understanding of the system as a whole, which is not possible in a clinical setting," said Ramachandran, who earned her undergraduate and master's degrees in electrical engineering and plans to pursue a career in bioinformatics. "You can get a complete picture of a particular condition affecting any part of the cardiopulmonary system, because you can look at the entire system at once."
Gorry justifiably feels the view he and his colleagues took years ago is paying off. "I believe the size of the award is indicative of the excellence of our program," he said. "Our hope is to produce elite people who are very strongly grounded in bioinformatics, but also have an interest in and an ability to apply their knowledge to this very complex domain of health care.
"We're not terribly interested in improving health care at the margins. That's not what we do. We are still radicals, and our job is to promote breakthroughs."
This article is courtesy of Rice University. Reposted with permission.