Department of Biology

  • Amsler, Kempin Reuter receive mentorship award

    The UAB Graduate Dean's Excellence in Mentorship Award recognizes full-time regular UAB faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments as mentors of graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows.

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  • Support the Benevolent Fund, change the future

    Contributions to the 2019 campaign goal supports local nonprofits such as Alabama Possible and its Cash for College program, which helped UAB junior Naomi Thomas attend college and discover her life’s calling.

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  • UAB aging and longevity researchers win international prize

    Department of Biology researchers will be honored in Switzerland this summer.

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  • Pioneering Women in UAB Biology: Nancy Love

    On June 5, 1971, Nancy Love became the first woman to receive a master’s degree from the Department of Biology.

    First Woman to Graduate with a Master’s Degree

    Nancy Love, a Gadsden, Ala. native, arrived at UAB in spring 1968. She had completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, at Vanderbilt University and was eager to delve deeper into biology. Under Dr. Patrick Dagg’s mentorship, Nancy joined the UAB Department of Biology graduate program and began research on early developmental events of mouse embryos. The program had just been established, and she was one of only a few female students. Even so, she recalls UAB feeling like a breath of fresh air after spending four years in Vanderbilt’s high-pressure environment. She enjoyed the opportunities UAB offered, particularly the graduate classes she took in UAB’s medical school and serving as a teaching assistant for the undergraduate introductory biology course. One special opportunity was provided by Dr. Dagg who arranged for Nancy to spend the summer of 1969 doing research at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. On June 5, 1971, Nancy became the first woman to receive a master’s degree from the Department of Biology.

    Nancy went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Cell Biology from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas and later joined the faculty at the University of Maryland’s Zoology Department. She spent thirteen years at the University of Maryland, eventually transitioning into an administrative role where she served as the Assistant Provost of Behavioral and Social Sciences and later as the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies. After relocation to Charlottesville, Virginia, and marriage to a University of Virginia faculty member, Nancy joined the faculty of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, where she spent 10 years in research administration before retiring in 2000. Nancy and her husband Tom currently enjoy a calm life in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In her spare time, she works away at a fiction book she’s writing – a murder mystery at a medical school – using all her experiences during graduate school to describe faculty and graduate students and their misadventures.

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  • Pioneering Women in UAB Biology: Janice Roberts

    In August 1971, Janice Roberts became the second woman to graduate with a master’s degree from UAB’s Department of Biology.

    One of the First Women to Graduate with a Ph.D.

    Upon graduating from nearby Judson College, Janice Roberts took a research position at Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute. Confident in her desire to pursue a career in research, she enrolled in graduate school at the Extension Center for the University of Alabama (soon to become UAB) researching ribosomes under Dr. Donald Fattig’s mentorship. During that time, something unexpected happened: Janice developed a love of teaching. Since childhood, she declared she would never become an educator, but the teaching assistantship that helped fund her graduate studies sparked her passion for teaching and changed the trajectory of her career. In August 1971, Janice became the second woman to graduate with a master’s degree from UAB’s Department of Biology.

    Later that year, Janice accepted a position as an instructor in the Biology Department at Jefferson State Community College (known then as Jefferson State Junior College). She thrived in the classroom, teaching courses in microbiology and freshman biology, as well as the interdisciplinary honors science course. In 1980, Janice took a leave of absence from JSCC to return to UAB to pursue her Ph.D. Janice’s doctoral research, performed under Dr. Patrick Dagg’s mentorship, studied caffeine-urethane interactions in mouse embryos. She was happy to be back at UAB among the close-knit group of graduate students. In 1983, Janice received her doctorate from UAB’s Department of Biology (only the second woman to do so) and then returned to her teaching career at JSCC. During her time at JSCC, Janice received many local, regional, and national accolades, including a Fulbright Teacher Exchange Fellowship in England, as well as the state of Alabama’s first ever Outstanding Junior College Faculty Award.

    Janice retired from Jefferson State Community College in 2010 after 38 years of service. A long-time supporter of Birmingham’s arts scene, Janice is a docent for the Birmingham Museum of Art and leads tours of the museum. As a lay member of the Board of the American Pulmonology Medicine Institute, she helps promote scholarship programs for medical students. Since retirement, Janice has indulged her love of travel and has visited six of the seven continents. In her down time, she enjoys playing bridge and spending time with her family, especially her great nieces and nephews.

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  • Pioneering Women in UAB Biology: Dr. Vithal Ghanta

    In 1986, Dr. Vithal Ghanta joined the Department of Biology as an Associate Professor, making her the department’s first female tenured faculty member. In 1989, she was promoted to full professor. Dr. Ghanta has spent the past 33 years advancing the department’s research and teaching.

    First Female Tenured Faculty Member

    In 1986, Dr. Vithal Ghanta joined the Department of Biology as an Associate Professor, making her the department’s first female tenured faculty member. In 1989, she was promoted to full professor. Dr. Ghanta has spent the past 33 years advancing the department’s research and teaching.

    Prior to joining the Department of Biology, Dr. Ghanta worked in the Department of Microbiology for 15 years as a postdoctoral fellow and an Assistant Professor researching immunology and cancer in mouse models. Over the span of her career, Dr. Ghanta’s research has primarily focused on tumor immunology, the immunology of aging, and regulation of the immune system by the central nervous system. Several years ago, she ceased her research efforts to focus on teaching.

    Since her early days in the department, Dr. Ghanta has been a staple in our classrooms, teaching courses such as Immunology, Biology of Aging, and Evolutionary Medicine. She is known and beloved by many students, going above and beyond to help them grow—not just as students, but as people. One student says, “Dr. Ghanta is a fantastic professor. She consistently makes herself available for questions and goes out of her way to ensure students understand the material if they approach her. She has definitely become one of my favorite teachers at UAB.”

    After almost 50 years at UAB and more than 30 years in the Department of Biology, Dr. Ghanta reflects back on her career with affection. She has cherished her time at UAB and says she is appreciative to have worked in a unified department with colleagues who were always supportive, respectful, friendly, and caring. Outside of work, Dr. Ghanta can be found tending to her garden and spending time with her husband of 43 years, Dr. Subbarao Vadlamudi.

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  • Pioneering Women in UAB Biology: Mary Shepherd

    In June 1970, Mary Shepherd received her diploma from UAB, making her the first woman to ever graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the Department of Biology!

    First Woman to Graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree

    After graduating from Birmingham’s Samuel Ullman High School (known today as UAB’s Ullman-Bell Complex), Mary Shepherd packed up her belongings and headed to Tuskegee University to pursue a degree in the sciences. During her junior year of college, she found out she was eligible to attend a state-supported school due to her husband’s status as a disabled veteran. In 1969, Mary and her husband moved back to Birmingham, and Mary transferred to UAB for her senior year. Adapting to UAB’s environment and academic requirements proved challenging. Being one of only a few African-American women in the program, she felt isolated and excluded, a far cry from her experience at Tuskegee. When her professor, Dr. Charles Crispens, saw her struggling, he stepped in to offer support—something Mary says she will never forget. Dr. Crispens inspired her stay in the program and encouraged her to focus on her course work and matriculation. In June 1970, Mary received her diploma, making her the first woman to ever graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the Department of Biology!

    With her degree in hand, Mary had her heart set on teaching, so she returned to UAB to get a master’s degree in education. After receiving her certification, Mary spent 29 years teaching science in the Alabama public school system. Her longest tenure was at Hewitt-Trussville High School. In 2000, with her first grandchild on the way, Mary retired so that she could focus on her family. Nineteen years later, she and her husband are the proud grandparents of 10 grandkids. Outside of family time, Mary enjoys participating in her church, traveling, and serving her community.

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  • Celebrate Women's History Month with the women who shape UAB

    From traveling to Antarctica to publishing children’s books, from taking biology educational tools to India to planting pollinator gardens on campus, women have been integral to shaping UAB’s reputation its 50-year history. As part of its annual coverage of Women’s History Month, the UAB Reporter has gathered examples of its more recent coverage of women at UAB.

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  • Ethics Bowl debate team wins second place at Nationals

    The team competed against 35 other teams at the 23rd National Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.

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  • 8 grants awarded to promote innovative teaching

    The proposals, which support new approaches to instruction and learning in a team environment, reflect the "incredible diversity of creative scholarship" at UAB.

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  • 2019 Winners of College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching Announced

    Established in 2018, the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching recognizes full-time regular faculty members of College of Arts and Sciences who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in teaching.

    Established in 2018, the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching recognizes full-time regular faculty members of College of Arts and Sciences who have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in teaching. The individual must have held faculty status at UAB for a minimum of three years and may receive the award only once in any three-year period. Winners were selected by the CAS President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Committee from three groupings of the College's academic departments:

    • Arts and Humanities – Art and Art History, Music, Theatre, Communication Studies, English, Foreign Languages, History and Philosophy
    • Natural Sciences and Mathematics – Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics and Mathematics
    • Social and Behavioral Sciences – African American Studies, Anthropology, Criminal Justice, Political Science and Public Administration, Psychology, Social Work and Sociology

    Winners were selected for their outstanding accomplishments in teaching as demonstrated by broad and thorough knowledge of the subject area; ability to convey difficult concepts; fairness, open-mindedness and accessibility to students; ability to inspire and mentor students; effective use of innovative teaching methods, promotion of ethical and professional values; modeling service and scholarly activities; and more.

    The three winners will be honored at a reception at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on March 5 and will be considered for the final College of Arts and Sciences nominee for the President’s Award of Excellence in Teaching.

    From the Arts and Humanities, Dr. DeReef Jamison, Associate Professor in the African American Studies Program

    Dr. Jamison explores the connections between Africana intellectual history and social science, particularly the notion of cultural consciousness. In his teaching, Dr. Jamison encourages students to think critically about the world in which they live. As he says in his faculty bio, he seeks to follow the model set by pioneering African American Studies scholars who stressed academic excellence, social responsibility, and social change.

    Dr. Jamison received his bachelor's degree in psychology from Bowie State University, his master's in community psychology from Florida A&M University, and his doctorate from Temple University in African American Studies.

    One of his student nominators said, "Dr. Jamison's classroom is unlike any other educational space. His remarkable teaching style remains a highlight of my education at UAB. He also takes a careful interest in each student and is available to expound on class assignments and topics or just sit and listen to the fanciful ideas of aspiring scholars. It was Dr. Jamison’s encouragement that persuaded me to apply to be an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his love of and commitment to his research and publications emboldened me to pursue graduate school."

    From the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Dr. Karolina Mukhtar, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology

    Dr. Mukhtar graduated with a joint B.S./M.Sc. in biology from the University of Szczecin, Poland. She received her Ph.D. in genetics from the Max-Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, Germany, and completed her post-doc in plant immunity from Duke University.

    Her research focuses on various aspects of plant-microbe interactions using genetic and biochemical approaches. Specifically, she explores the interface between the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and several of its pathogens, including both fungi and bacteria. She is a committed teacher at all levels, including K-12, and was named one of the 11 inaugural UAB Faculty Fellows in Service Learning.

    She has created innovative teaching methods and is committed to developing instructional strategies for students with various learning disabilities. In Spring 2015, she was named Outstanding Faculty Mentor by the Office of Disability Support Services.

    One of Dr. Mukhtar's student nominators said, "Dr. Mukhtar's engaging lectures, clear explanations, and presentation of the field's newest discoveries combined to make my undergraduate Plant Biology class the best lecture-based course I have ever experienced. Later, when I was one of her Supplemental Instruction Leaders, she always made sure I had everything I needed to do my job well and made time to explain the concepts so I could better serve the students. I was able to see how she adapted her plans based on the needs of the students. She consistently looks for ways to improve her teaching methods to ensure her students gain a deeper understanding of genetics."

    From the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Dr. Erin Borry, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration

    Dr. Borry's research focuses on bureaucratic structure, employee minority status, and employee willingness to bend rules and perceptions of red tape. She has also published work on governmental transparency and government websites.

    Dr. Borry received her bachelor's degree and master's in public administration from Rutgers University and her doctorate from the University of Kansas. She currently serves as the digital media editor for the journal Public Integrity and as a board member for two sections within the American Society for Public Administration. She is also a research fellow with the Center for Organization Research and Design (CORD) at Arizona State University and is an affiliated researcher with the Local Government Workplaces Initiative (LGWI) at the University of North Carolina.

    Some of her most recent courses include Human Resources Management, Intergovernmental Relations, Open Government, and Scope of Public Administration.

    One of her nominators wrote, "Dr. Borry’s teaching influences my daily leadership. As an executive director of a local non-profit, I frequently rely on the concepts Dr. Borry demonstrated in the Human Resource Management class. When I took her class, I had limited experience managing employees. She had the challenging task of conveying a topic with which most of us had no experience, and she did so brilliantly. I’ve heard that alumni success raises the caliber of academic programs. However, alumni would not be successful without relevant, engaging, and high-caliber teaching. Dr. Erin Borry provides the academic foundation for me and my fellow alumni to succeed."

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  • Antarctic explorer honored for two decades of research expeditions

    The Explorers Club honors Jim McClintock, Ph.D., for his ongoing efforts in chemical ecology and drug discovery.

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  • New UAB Science and Engineering Complex proposal advances with Stage I Board approval

    Science and engineering programs will come together in a new state-of-the-art complex at UAB, pending additional Board approvals.

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  • Leading researcher returns to discuss origins of human AIDS and malaria at UAB’s Darwin Day

    UAB invites you to Darwin Day: A Celebration of Science, which highlights how AIDS and malaria became prevalent in Africa and created a worldwide epidemic.

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  • Biology Faculty Secure NSF Grant to Investigate Dwindling Macroalgae Community

    UAB Department of Biology professors Dr. Charles Amsler and Dr. Jim McClintock, along with co-PIs Dr. Katrin Iken (University of Alaska, Fairbanks), Dr. Aaron Galloway (University of Oregon), and Dr. Andrew Klein (Texas A&M University), secured a $880,000 NSF grant to investigate brown macroalgae in the northern portion of the western Antarctic Peninsula region.

    UAB Department of Biology professors Dr. Charles Amsler and Dr. Jim McClintock, along with co-PIs Dr. Katrin Iken (University of Alaska, Fairbanks), Dr. Aaron Galloway (University of Oregon), and Dr. Andrew Klein (Texas A&M University), secured a $880,000 NSF grant to investigate brown macroalgae in the northern portion of the western Antarctic Peninsula region.

    Brown macroalgae form extensive undersea forests in the northern part of the western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and play a key role in providing both physical structure and energy sources in shallow water communities. Further south on the WAP, these macroalgae become markedly less abundant and diverse, presumably because increased sea ice to the south reduces light available to the algae. This creates a fundamental change in ocean floor community processes and organization which impacts nutrition and food chain levels. As climate change has resulted in drastically reduced sea ice coverage in the southern WAP over the past 30 to 50 years, macroalgal communities typical of the northern part of the region should be expanding southward. In an effort to identify the extent and ramifications of the impact of this shift on the seafloor communities, a nine-person field team will travel to Antarctica in April and May 2019 to document the macroalgal communities and test hypotheses about the cause and consequences of the alteration of macroalgal communities. The field team consists of 3 UAB researchers - Dr. Charles Amsler, Maggie Amsler, and Sabrina Heiser, - as well 2 researchers with academic roots at UAB – Dr. Julie Schram and Dr. Katrin Iken. They hypothesize that increased sea ice cover along the region from north to south plays an important role in decreasing light available to the macroalgal communities. The team will use satellite data to choose study sites where variation in light due to differences in annual sea ice cover will be a major environmental variable. Their research should ultimately allow them to predict what community-level impacts might result from further changes in sea ice cover as a result of global climate change, which is already having other major impacts in the region.

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  • Student Demo Day features new student startup companies

    Student entrepreneurs pitch their business ventures to the Birmingham business community following a 10-week training program.

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  • Alumni honored at the 2018 UAB Excellence in Business Top 25 event

    We are proud to announce that eight College of Arts and Sciences alumni were honored as members of the 2018 class of the UAB Excellence in Business Top 25.

    We are proud to announce that eight College of Arts and Sciences alumni were honored as members of the 2018 class of the UAB Excellence in Business Top 25 on Friday, June 21, at the UAB National Alumni Society House.

    These deserving graduates were among 25 UAB alumni recognized for their success at a company they founded, owned, or managed. The UAB National Alumni Society, with the help of Birmingham-based accounting firm Warren Averett, has ranked and verified the nominated companies based on the annual growth rate for the three most recent reporting periods.

    Companies being considered for an Excellence in Business Award must meet the following criteria:

    1. The company must be owned, managed or founded by a UAB graduate (or group of graduates) who meets one of the following:
      • Owned 50 percent or more of the company during the most recent eligible period.
      • Served on the most senior/division leadership team (chairman, CEO, president, partner, vice president, broker, etc.) during the eligible period.
    2. The company has been in operation for a minimum of three years prior to December 31, 2017.
    3. The company has verifiable revenues of at least $150,000 for its most recent 12-month reporting period.

    Congratulations to our deserving graduates!

    ADAM ALDRICH

    Aldrich is the President and Co-Founder of Airship, a software development firm in Birmingham. Airship deploys a wide array of technologies to service clients in 11 states and across a range of industries, including healthcare, construction, retail, insurance, real estate, non-profit, and fitness. Aldrich graduated with a bachelor's in computer and information sciences in 2008.

    DR. CHARLES D. BISHOP

    Dr. Bishop is the owner of Metroplex Endodontics & Microsurgery in Dallas, Texas, where he is in practice with his wife. He graduated in 1991 with an M.S. in biology and in 1998 with a Ph.D. in biology, before receiving his D.M.D. from the Baylor College of Dentistry.


    JOHN BURDETT

    Burdett is the CEO of Fast Slow Motion, a Birmingham-based firm that provides support for companies and organizations using Salesforce, a cloud computing firm specializing in customer relationship management. Burdett graduated with a bachelor's in computer and information sciences in 2000.

    CINDY IRWIN

    Irwin is the Human Resources Director for Kelley & Mullis Wealth Management, based in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. The independent investment firm was founded more than 25 years ago; as HR director, Irwin directs human resources as well as support services and public relations/marketing. She graduated in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.


    DR. MARY DICKERSON LEE

    Franklin Primary Health Center, Inc. is a Mobile-based community health clinic founded in 1975 with a goal to provide quality healthcare to underserved communities. Dr. Lee is the Chief Dental Director at the clinic and graduated with a B.A. in natural science in 1989 and a D.M.D. from the UAB School of Dentistry in 1992.

    JOE MALUFF

    Maluff and his brother David bought the original Full Moon Bar-B-Que restaurant in 1997 and have been growing the business steadily ever since. Full Moon now has 14 locations across the state with ideas on expansion to other states in the future. Maluff graduated in 1996 with a B.S. in psychology.


    BLAKE PRIME AND LANCE RHODES

    Prime, who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2006 with a B.S. in biology and in 2011 with an M.B.A. from the Collat School of Business, is the director of adult fitness at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in Hoover. Rhodes, a 2008 graduate with a B.A. in history, is the owner of Godspeed and the director of athletic performance.

     



    In addition to our eight honorees, two alumni won top honors in Fastest Growing Companies with annual revenues under $10 Million: Adam Aldrich, CEO of Airship, 75 percent growth; and John Burdett, CEO of Fast Slow Motion, 71 percent growth.

    And in the Fastest Growing Companies with annual revenues over $10 million, the top winner was alumnus Joe Maluff of Full Moon Bar-B-Que with 35 percent growth over the previous year.

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  • Computer science meets the biological sciences in the new bioinformatics program

    New degrees in the College prepare students for emerging fields of personalized medicine, advanced manufacturing, and more.

    New degrees in the College prepare students for emerging fields of personalized medicine, advanced manufacturing, and more.

    By Cary Estes


    It is an image that goes along with almost any story about the history of the computer. One or two people are in front of this clunky-looking machine that is as big as a suitcase (or a refrigerator, depending upon the decade). As the processing gears slowly dribble out the data, the person dutifully records the information using the ultimate low-tech device: pen and paper.

    This, in essence, was data gathering at the dawn of the computer age. All you needed was a notebook, and maybe a calculator when things got complex. The information superhighway was still merely a footpath, and everything moved at a moderate pace.

    Obviously, that no longer is the case. We don’t have a river of data these days. We have Niagara Falls, constantly drenching us with bits and bytes and more knowledge than we’ve ever had. And in many ways, more than we can handle.

    Yuliang Zheng, chair, Department of Computer Science.Computer Science Meets the Biological Sciences

    “Everything is centered around data now,” says Yuliang Zheng. Ph.D., chair of the Department of Computer Science. “What is the best way to collect data? How do you organize it? How do you analyze it? How do you make sense of it? Then, how do you turn that data into something useful, whether that means making money or saving lives? There are skills that are required to go through all these different steps.”

    The College of Arts and Sciences is helping students learn these steps with the introduction of a new undergraduate degree in bioinformatics, which focuses on complex biological data such as genetic codes. The new program is a result of a collaboration between the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Biology and the UAB School of Medicine, and is the first of its kind in the state of Alabama. In addition, the Department of Computer Science has also introduced a new master’s in data science, which is designed to prepare students with skills they can apply to careers in big data, including machine learning; modeling, analysis, and management of data sets; and efficient, algorithmic-based problem solving.

    For undergraduates, the focus is on the intersection of computer science and the biological sciences. “The idea is that all the new genomics and proteomics—basically the new form of medicine that is going to take over in the next 20 years—is going to be hugely data-intensive,” says Steven Austad, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biology. “Everybody is going to have their genome on file. It’s going to be a massive data organization and analysis.

    “This degree is designed to get people trained in biology to be able to recognize the data, trained in computer science to be able to write software to evaluate the data, and then trained in bioinformatics to organize the data. So this is going to train people in a lot of things that are going to be incredibly useful.”

    It is a rigorous curriculum, with multiple class requirements involving mathematics, computer science, biology, chemistry, genetics, and engineering. The end result will be graduates who are well-positioned for careers in the emerging data-based workforce in medicine and other fields.

    John Johnstone, co-director of the bioinformatics program.“Science in general is becoming team-oriented and interdisciplinary. This is a great example of that, with so many different disciplines involved,” says John Johnstone, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and co-director of the bioinformatics program. “It’s an elite program for an elite student. It’s challenging, but there are a lot of opportunities for a person who can do it right. There is a lot of demand for this, and not enough people who understand it.”

    Data collection and analysis already is widely used in everyday life, from genetic testing companies such as 23andMe, to the cameras and other electronic devices in new cars, to the responses generated by virtual assistants Siri and Alexa. Much of the interest at UAB likely will involve the medical field, including the use of data in creating disease treatment options specifically tailored for individual patients.

    “Bioinformatics is the same as working with any huge data set, except now the data set is the human genome,” Johnstone says. “You are gleaning information computationally from that data, and you can tune your medical treatment based on this analysis. It’s a very exciting, cutting-edge direction.”

    The Future of Healthcare

    The university took an initial step in that direction in 2017 with the hiring of computer scientist Matt Might, Ph.D., as the inaugural director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute. Simply put, the goal is to create personalized medical diagnosis and treatments based on the genomic data derived from each individual patient, which is analyzed by data scientists.

    Steven Austad, chair, Department of Biology.“Right now, we sort of treat everybody the same. You get a certain diagnosis, and a certain treatment for that diagnosis,” Austad says. “That is about to change, and the reason is there’s this data that’s going to be available. That’s what this is all ultimately about, understanding what makes you an individual and how medical diagnosis and treatment will work on you as opposed to somebody else.

    “This can be done because your doctor is going to have access to your entire genome. The problem is, your doctor is probably not going to understand what it means. So they are going to need people who do understand it and can produce it in some sort of interpretable fashion. That’s where bioinformatics comes in. It’s not enough just to know all the computer stuff. You also need to know all the underlying biology.”

    That is exactly what the College's new bioinformatics degree will provide. Computer science students have been learning how to use computation-thinking techniques to gather data for years, and medical students obviously have long had an understanding of human biology. The bioinformatics program will combine those two skill sets.

    “Having that cross-disciplinary training is going to create people who can straddle the fence and have one foot in the biology and the medical aspects of the problem being addressed, and the other foot in the analytic techniques that can be applied to that,” says James Cimino, M.D., director of the Informatics Institute in the School of Medicine.

    “We have a lot of medical researchers who have data, and they’re at a loss as to what to do with it. They know the biology, and suddenly they have a new way to collect biological data, but they have not been trained on how to interpret this data. So there’s a big demand for people to work in either a support role or a collaborative role to do that. There’s not nearly enough trained people right now to meet the demand.”

    Elliot Leftkovitz, co-director of the bioinformatics program.Graduates of the UAB bioinformatics program will have the skills needed for a variety of academic research positions, as well as government jobs involving epidemiology (through the Centers for Disease Control) and drug development (through the Food and Drug Administration). Pharmaceutical companies also need employees who are capable of analyzing data to identify genetic targets that can help in drug development.

    “For example, say you find that a particular genetic variant keeps popping up in one individual gene in patients' associated with a specific disease. Now you have a gene that might be targeted by a therapeutic drug based upon the discovery,” says Elliot Lefkowitz, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and co-director of the bioinformatics program. “That discovery is derived from the massive amounts of data that clinical studies have provided, and companies need bioinformaticians to help them sort through that data.”

    College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Palazzo, Ph.D., who is also a cell biologist, elaborates. “Imagine that an analysis of a simple blood sample indicates that a specific profile of tumor enzymes not normally found in the blood stream are elevated,“ he says. “After a series of tests and biopsies, scientists can sequence the gene—highlighting a new, never-before-seen protein mutation that is leading to the tumor growth. Since the patient is the first with such a mutation, no information is available on potential drug treatments. Bioinformatics helps to identify a specific target site on the protein for the generation of novel drugs to create a totally new approach. All of this, and much more, is possible through the application of bioinformatics' computational and analytical technologies.“

    Attracting Students

    Austad says he received a “tremendous amount of interest” in the program when he talked with prospective students this past summer. He noted that since today’s college-bound medical students grew up with computers as part of their daily life, the concept of bioinformatics does not seem as daunting to many of them.

    “Students who might be interested in medical school but are also interested in computers, suddenly they realize that their two passions can be combined into a single major,” Austad says. “We think this is going to be a great recruiting tool to bring some really top students to UAB. This major is going to be so sellable because of the huge demand in the industry. Our graduates will walk out of here and into some really high-paying jobs.”

    Jobs that will not necessarily be in the medical field. Because as Zheng points out, “Things are changing so fast, there will soon be opportunities in jobs that haven’t even been created yet. The future will be driven by data in every field. It’s all about the data.”


    Read More: UAB launches new master’s in data science program

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  • Pavela leads UAB team to study association of BMI and mortality

    Greg Pavela, Ph.D., will lead the UAB team to study why some people are more susceptible to the health consequences of obesity than others.

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  • Henry Kendrick and Khushee Modi win Mr. and Ms. UAB Scholarship Competition

    The winners of the Mr. and Ms. UAB competition will each receive $2,500 scholarships and serve as ambassadors of UAB.

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