December 8, 2016

Biology Department adds new degree

Webster University’s Biological Sciences Department will implement a new degree for the upcoming 2015-2016 academic year: a Bachelor of Science in Computational Biology.

The degree will combine aspects from biological sciences, math and computer science. It was designed to bridge the gap between the biologists who research and the programmers who store the data. The major will include science courses like Essentials of Biology, General Chemistry and Gene Expression, as well as math and computer science courses like Database Concepts and Probability.

While the new degree was announced this spring, the university laid the groundwork to create it almost a decade ago.

About eight years ago, Webster’s Biological Sciences Department tried to create a  Masters Degree in Bioinformatics, or the collection, study and storage of biological information, such as genome sequencing through the use of computers. However, the Graduate Council—which is made up of faculty and administrators who approve new courses, programs and other areas of curriculum specifically concerning graduate students—did not approve it.

About four years after the attempt, in 2011, the department worked with the College of Arts and Sciences to research which practices in science had the greatest demand in the St. Louis area and which practices were not being met. They met with many scientific organizations with whom they already had good working relationships, such as Sigma Aldrich, Monsanto, the Danforth Center, Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Zoo and SAGE Labs.

They found employers needed students who have good computer, math and biology skills, and that a student with all three of these skills would be a much sought-after employee.

The Biological Sciences Department worked in conjunction with the Math and Computer Sciences Departments to plan the courses the degree needed. The department also took into consideration the courses the university already had.

The Biological Sciences Department finally adopted the new degree: the Bachelor of Science in Computational Biology.

“It (the degree) was like taking the best of all those areas (biology, math and computer science) to put together a really good package that met the needs of employers in the St. Louis area,” Biological Department Chair Stephanie Schroeder said.

Schroeder said more and more data is being and will continue to be gathered on science in general. There are computer programmers and mathematicians who know how to write code, and at the same time, there are biologists who understand the scientific aspect, but not the coding.

“Companies are looking for a jack-of-all-trades,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder said Assistant Professor Victoria Brown-Kennerly did a lot of legwork, especially with the mentors.

“Less than a year after she was hired, it (the degree) went through Curriculum Committee,” Schroeder said.  “We need, as always with new programs, a faculty advocate who can lead the charge.”

Brown-Kennerly worked as a project manager and research assistant professor at Washington University’s Genome Technology Access Center (GTAC) before she came to Webster in the fall of 2013.   

She acted as the liaison between the scientists who did the research and the bioinformaticians, coders who understand the programming in biology.

Brown-Kennerly said GTAC was looking for employees who could sink their teeth into both disciplines­—ones who understood the science and the coding.

“Labs and medical schools are getting so much data­—more data than any one biologist can sift through only using Excel,” Brown-Kennerly said.

Informed by her management experiences at GTAC, she advocated merging biological sciences, computer science and math into one degree after she was hired at Webster.

“Back in the day, biologists weren’t trained to do the programming and programmers weren’t trained to do the biology,” Brown-Kennerly said.

Recruitment for the degree has already started. Enrollment will open in the 2015-2016 academic year. The department updated the website with the degree information. Webster is promoting the degree through the Dean’s Office in the College of Arts & Sciences and plans  to speak at  high schools and community colleges about what the new degree will offer.

A lot of the software used in computational biology is freeware or shareware (both free of charge). The Biological Sciences Department has been working with Information Technology to create a specific space to store all the data and already has some of the software needed.

Schroeder said the students will begin by learning the  C++ programming language. She describes the course as a good starting point to build on some of the more modern programming languages used in computational biology.

“It’s a very universal language,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder believes the most valuable skill students will learn from the new computational biology degree will be the ability to communicate with programmers.

“They can really bridge that gap by having an understanding in both disciplines,” Schroeder said.  “We do already have a lot of our biology majors who minor or even double major in math. This is aimed toward those who like both of those fields.”

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