University unveils biotech major program

The two-year graduate program will be offered at the Rochester campus.

Karlee Weinmann

The University’s Rochester campus demonstrated commitment to emerging as a leading research institution Thursday.

At a Rochester Higher Education Development Committee meeting, developers of a two-year biotechnology graduate program unveiled their preliminary plans to take advantage of Rochester-based powerhouses Mayo Clinic and IBM as well as the University’s Hormel Institute, forging partnerships to advance a program currently not offered on any University of Minnesota campus.

The cross-disciplinary program will focus on biomedical informatics and computational biology – areas applying technical, computer-oriented methods to biological problems.

Marilyn Stewart, chair of the education committee that gave the go-ahead to the project, said a theme of cooperation between the University and the other entities was woven throughout the presentation.

“We talked so much about in today’s world you’ve got to partner,” she said. “This whole session was about partnering.”

To design a fully operational program, College of Biological Sciences and Institute of Technology delegates collaborated with Rochester campus representatives.

The University’s Twin Cities campus currently offers a graduate minor in bioinformatics, but the major program will be more comprehensive and wide-reaching, due in part to the proximity of the Rochester campus to the Mayo Clinic and IBM.

The University needs to create a thorough and exhaustive major program to remain among the top in industrial competition, according to Vipin Kumar, program developer and head of the computer science department on the Twin Cities campus.

“This is the hottest area for research. It requires expertise from computer science and engineering,” he said. “We have all the pieces; we just need to make them work together.”

Dick Westerlund, director of academic affairs for the Rochester campus who helped develop the program, said making it a joint venture between the University and proven research leaders could lead to a statewide fiscal boost.

Mayo Clinic and IBM experts in research sciences and computing, when paired with students’ work, could lead to advancements in medical treatments and means of diagnosis.

“The bottom line is economic growth for the state of Minnesota,” Westerlund said.

In fall 2007, 10 graduate students will enroll in the program’s pilot phase. While the program will not be fully off the ground, these students will enroll in already-existing courses related to computational biology and biomedical informatics.

Fellowships furnished by part of the $3.2 million allotted by the state to propel higher education in Rochester will be awarded to the students.

The initial group will be new graduate students or those already pursuing degrees in similar areas of study recruited by IT and biological science professors.

Claudia Neuhauser, head of the ecology, evolution and behavior department on the Twin Cities campus who helped develop the program, said the class entering the preliminary program in 2007 will be a vital measuring tool.

“We want to make sure within the next two years, there are some results,” she said. “It will help us formulate what kind of program we want to have.”

Westerlund said the goal is to phase in the first graduate students who will be fully immersed in the program’s offerings in fall 2008.

Involved students will work with “parent program” advisers, such as those in computer science, in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic, IBM or Hormel Institute advisers, according to Rochester Provost David Carl.

“This is, in fact, very much a partnership,” he said. “We’re going to be able to leverage the talent and resources of those three partner institutions, and this is what’s going to make it special.”

Organizers are still deciding whether there will be separate degrees for biomedical informatics and computational biology, or if the program’s components will be combined.

Concurrent with the student recruitment process, a planning committee will arrange several events targeting potential researchers.

The committee, comprised of Mayo Clinic, IBM, Hormel Institute and University representatives, will host its first symposium March 8.

“The venue will be a social gathering where they’ll get to talk to each other. It’s structured to gather around areas of common interest, where people can describe who they are, and the hope is that they’ll make some connections,” Westerlund said.

Subsequent meetings will be more open, publicized as events where researchers interested in biotechnology projects can network under the umbrella of the new program.

“In a way, this is a research project in itself,” he said. “We think this is going to be successful because we’re working with the faculty. We want this to be faculty driven.”

While the program is still in its infancy, those dedicated to the development of the Rochester campus see it as an unparalleled opportunity.

“This is really going to be a major advancement for the University and for the programming in Rochester,” Carl said. “It’s the first big step (the University is) taking in programming in the biotechnology area.”