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UC Merced Wins $2.7 Million to Establish Center for Computational Biology

October 13, 2004
Center to Enable Research, Training Opportunities in Cutting-edge Field

MERCED — The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Advanced Scientific Computing has awarded a three-year, $900,000-per-year grant to the University of California, Merced, to establish a Center for Computational Biology (CCB). Researchers at the CCB will use computer simulations to help understand situations traditionally studied by biologists, such as how cancer cells interact with drugs used to treat the disease, or how a plant or animal population changes over time due to ecological issues.

Professor Michael Colvin will be the director of the new center with Assistant Professor Arnold Kim as deputy director. UC Merced will collaborate with other institutions such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop the CCB.

“Math and computer science are beginning to have a dramatic impact in the field of biology,” said Colvin. “The Center for Computational Biology will attract and retain a new generation of biologists whose research depends on that interaction.”

The UC Merced CCB is one of three such centers being created by the Department of Energy (DOE). The other two are located at the University of Wisconsin and the Johns Hopkins University.

“The UC Merced proposal was outstanding,” said Gary Johnson of the DOE, who helped award the grant. “It was very responsive to our call for participation and of the highest intellectual caliber. We hope that computational biology will grow to be a central focus of the research and educational life of UC Merced.”

The research objectives of the CCB will be carried out on regular desktop computers already either planned or established at UC Merced, as well as on supercomputers at centers run by the DOE and other large entities. Very little should be needed by way of new facilities and equipment. Therefore, the DOE funds will be used primarily to bring people on board to run the new center. Positions will open up for grad students and postdoctoral fellows to help carry forward research as well as staff members to plan workshops, talks and student activities.

Staff members will also work with faculty to plan and create new, computer-oriented materials for life sciences courses that will make the newest research methods and results available to students, to be dispersed for free through the Connexions courseware system at Rice University. Graduate students at UC Merced will begin to use elements of these materials in the current semester, Fall 2004. Undergraduate students will use and assess the new courses in Fall 2005.

This computational biology training for students comes just in time, Johnson said. “Biology is becoming a computational science,” he explained. “The use of computers in the sequencing of the human genome was just the beginning - the best is yet to come. Computation will have a transformative effect on biology. The time to start is now.”

The CCB will develop methods to translate that computer power into improved biological understanding. This should create increased job marketability and security for students who benefit from its programs, as well as progress for the larger scientific community.