BLACKSBURG, June 1, 2001 - The Commonwealth of Virginia created the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute last year as a central facility for the subject. "The Institute is really a bridge across the commonwealth between public and private interests," explains Institute director Bruno Sobral. "We believe that the future of biology is intimately tied to bringing together wet chemistry experimentation with computer modeling. So we are bringing those things together in one program."
Based on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the new Institute serves organizations throughout the state. "We're a research partner not only to university departments but also to companies," says Sobral. "By working with manufacturers of wet tools, we can help develop the next generation of equipment — making instrumentation more compatible with robots, for example."
The Institute will expand rapidly. "Our four-year plan calls for us to have 33 hard money faculty members at all levels plus 90 postdoctoral fellows and research students, professional staff, and technicians. We expect to generate another 200-300 soft money positions with the 120 hard money spots, for a total of 300-500 positions by 2004," Sobral says. "We're looking for senior people with experience and more junior scientists with an interest in biology who will find a way to learn about the field." Employees will come from all aspects of science and particularly quantitative disciplines. "As faculty we have already hired mathematicians and physicists as well as molecular biologists, and geneticists like myself," he continues. "We expect to hire engineers."
Individual employees will develop their own specialist approaches to bioinformatics. And they will be expected to participate in teams tackling complex problems. "The first, nonnegotiable aspect of any hire is being a good scientist," says Sobral. "But we explore applicants' team capabilities just as seriously. Scientists must like working in teams. The majority of problems we will tackle won't be solved by individuals."
Recognizing the lack of competent specialists in bioinformatics, the Institute has taken steps to attract the best candidates. "We have a very flexible salary structure that allows us to compete with companies," Sobral says. "We have a very attractive package in terms of research. Because we are part of a university, we can give incoming scientists access to an academic infrastructure. And we offer a really important quality of life in the Appalachians that suits many people very well."
Sobral offers differing advice to life scientists and physical scientists interested in bioinformatics careers. "Biologists should learn as many quantitative skills as they can. Quantitative scientists should team up with biologists who have interesting problems," he suggests. "Both should recognize that they will be expert in one side or the other. Bioinformatics is a team profession. You use team members' skills to get a synergistic effect."
May 31, 2001