Building an institute capable of combining diverse scientific expertise with a unique, high-performance computing infrastructure has taken years of careful planning.

Today, the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech is answering challenges to human health, habitat, and well-being at a scale that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. From a forward-thinking commitment to developing new methods for analyzing the basic building blocks of life, we have built an institute with the capacity to explain, predict, and visualize the behavior of massively interacting systems.

Biocomplexity Institute facility under construction

Our institute was conceived in response to a major policy initiative that established biotechnology as a central area of economic growth for the Commonwealth. To answer this urgent demand, Virginia Tech committed to establish a world-class research institute that would be capable of addressing these new, large-scale research opportunities across traditional disciplinary lines. Founded as the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, we opened our first offices in 2000.  

Building on early successes in genomic sequencing, the institute quickly established itself as a leader in another emerging scientific field: the simulation of complex systems. These efforts were expanded dramatically in 2004 with the creation of our Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory (NDSSL.)

NDSSL’s initial work creating large-scale simulations for the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services spurred the development of powerful “synthetic populations”—demographically accurate virtual populations capable of simulating complex responses to real-world situations. This versatile resource, which helped guide emergency response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has expanded beyond regional populations and is now nearly global in scale.

With the addition of the Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory (NIMML) in 2008, the institute’s expertise in modeling massively interacting systems was applied with a new focus toward individual health. While investigating the immune responses that drive chronic inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s and IBD, the lab developed a unique set of simulation tools capable of modeling the entire mucosal immune system, from cells to systems.

NIMML Director Josep Bassaganya-Riera speaks to lab

Since its inception, NIMML has continued to create new methods for researchers to test hypotheses about human immune functions safely and efficiently, speeding the translation of new biological knowledge into more effective treatments.

As the demand for big data analysis increases across scientific disciplines, researchers and policy-makers have sought out new means to draw actionable information out of massive datasets. Anticipating these developments, the Biocomplexity Institute established its Social Decision Analytics Laboratory (SDAL) in 2013, headquartered in the Virginia Tech National Capital Region. Uniting experts in statistics and the social and behavioral sciences, SDAL supports policy decision-making in the public, private, and academic sectors with the latest evidence-based research and quantitative methods.

With the establishment of the Mathematical Biocomplexity Laboratory (MBL) in 2015, our institute began to expand the capacity of all scientific disciplines to store, sort, and make meaning out of massive datasets. The MBL has developed new ways to understand logical relationships among the basic building blocks of life, creating algorithms that can predict the complex folding patterns of RNA. In collaboration with foundational theorist Michael S. Waterman, the MBL continues to cultivate the mathematical roots of biocomplexity.

Fifteen years after its founding, the scope and direction of the institute’s major research efforts had evolved to the point that bioinformatics alone could no longer encompass the magnitude of our mission. With a 250-person team collaborating across disciplines to understand complex systems at every scale, a new name was needed to demonstrate our expanded institutional purpose.

Biocomplexity Institute executive directors meet with President Timothy Sands

The institute officially changed its title to the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech on December 1, 2015 to reflect our commitment to this new direction.

Biocomplexity, the study of life and environment as a complex system driven by interactions between many simple components, has applications that range from molecular biology to public policy. As one of the seven Research Institutes of Virginia Tech, we apply this unique expertise to interdisciplinary research efforts throughout the university and provide collaborators access to the technical capabilities of a high-performance computing infrastructure.

Today, our institute embodies a problem-driven approach to science that is as nuanced and far-reaching as the issues it seeks to solve. Health care specialists, scientists, and public-serving institutions looking for a partner to help them leverage massive amounts of data toward a safer, more secure future are finding the expertise they need at the Biocomplexity Institute.