BLACKSBURG, Va., June 30, 2010 - Reinhard Laubenbacher, Professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and the Department of Mathematics at Virginia Tech, testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Research and Science Education on Tuesday June 29 in Washington, DC. The hearing was convened to examine the future of the biological sciences in the 21st century.

Panel
Subcommittee on Research & Science Education Witness Panel: (From L to R: Dr. Keith Yamamoto, Dr. James Collins, Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, Dr. Joshua Leonard, Dr. Karl Sanford). Source: http://science.house.gov/

In 2009, a seminal National Research Council report1 proposed a national initiative to promote a new biology that focuses on problem-centric, interdisciplinary research in the life sciences to help solve societal challenges in health, food, energy, and the environment. Laubenbacher was invited by Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and other members of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee to discuss some of the grand research challenges at the interface of biology and mathematics. He was also called upon to provide his personal insight on ways to strengthen interdisciplinary scientific collaborations as well as the training and education of tomorrow's workforce in the life sciences.

Laubenbacher has served as Vice President for Science Policy for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) since 2009. A white paper produced by SIAM2 on opportunities at the interface between the mathematical and computational sciences and the life sciences helped shape his testimony. Said Laubenbacher: "The bottleneck in biology is shifting toward data analysis. Breakthroughs in mathematics, statistics, and the computational sciences will be necessary to assure that data analysis can keep up with data generation. New approaches to information analysis, data, and modeling are needed to advance our understanding of the natural world." In his written testimony, Laubenbacher provided a detailed list of areas of mathematical research that had the potential to bring significant benefits to biology.

In an opening statement to the subcommittee, Congressman Lipinski remarked: "As a former university professor, I've seen firsthand the difficulty of overcoming cultural and institutional barriers between academic departments and schools. Even within a single discipline [...] researchers often stay safely within their subspecialties. But the potential successes that can be realized by having interdisciplinary teams working on biological problems mean that we need to ensure these collaborations continue to grow."

Laubenbacher believes one of the most important lessons to be drawn from his personal experience at VBI is the merit of integration of different areas of research expertise into one physical and administrative structure. This structure should be problem centric rather than discipline centric and can serve as an important accelerator of interdisciplinary research. Said Laubenbacher: "While this is common practice in industry, it is less so in academe."

In his testimony, Laubenbacher stressed the importance of integrated teaching curricula and research experiences as a lynchpin of undergraduate education for interdisciplinary biology. In graduate education, he emphasized that both departmental and interdisciplinary PhD programs can be very effective in preparing students for research in the new biology. Said Laubenbacher: "Integration of curricula, the need for balance between diversity and depth of training, and the opportunity to develop a common culture across disciplines are key goals for graduate education. Federal support for efforts to align graduate education with these goals is needed, as creating and maintaining such programs requires a major investment in time and resources."

The Research and Science Education Subcommittee hearing was convened to examine how research at the intersection of the physical sciences, engineering, and biology might help to address some of the formidable research challenges the world faces in energy, the environment, agriculture, materials and manufacturing.

Other speakers at the hearing included: Keith Yamamoto, Chair of the Life Science Section, National Academy of Sciences, and Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco; James Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment, Department of Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Science, Arizona State University; Joshua Leonard, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Northwestern University; Karl Sanford, Vice President Technology Development, Genencor.

Read the press release from the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology:

 

1National Research Council, A new biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States leads the coming biology revolution, 2009, http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Biology-21st/12764

2Mathematics: An enabling technology for the new biology, 2010, http://www.siam.org/about/science/pdf/math_biology.pdf

 

About VBI

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (https://www.bi.vt.edu/) at Virginia Tech is a premier bioinformatics, computational biology, and systems biology research facility that uses transdisciplinary approaches to science combining information technology, biology, and medicine. These approaches are used to interpret and apply vast amounts of biological data generated from basic research to some of today's key challenges in the biomedical, environmental, and agricultural sciences. With more than 240 highly trained multidisciplinary, international personnel, research at the institute involves collaboration in diverse disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, systems biology, statistics, economics, synthetic biology, and medicine. The large amounts of data generated by this approach are analyzed and interpreted to create new knowledge that is disseminated to the world's scientific, governmental, and wider communities.

About the College of Science

The College of Science (http://www.science.vt.edu) at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college offers programs in many cutting edge areas, including those in energy and the environment, developmental science across the lifespan, infectious diseases, computational science, and nanoscience. The College of Science is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment that promotes scientific education and outreach.

Published by Barry Whyte, July 01, 2010