U lab fuses its research approaches

A U biology lab links hands-on experiments with data computation.

Keaton Schmitt

The abstract realm of data meets the hands-on lab bench in a new University of Minnesota research initiative.
The lab — located in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building — opened last month and brings together four research teams from the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering. 
The unique new lab space centers on computational biology yet still maintains traditional research space, said Computer Science Professor Dan Knights, who leads one of the site’s teams.
Computational biology analyzes large swaths of data in tandem with simulations and mathematical models, Knights said, and contrasts from wet lab research’s focus on more traditional in-lab experiments.
This kind of research method has become popular alongside the advancement of genetics studies and other fields, said CSE Professor and Team Leader Chad Myers.
The idea for the lab arose about a year ago when Myers and Knights approached Tom Hays — associate dean of research at CBS — with the idea of bringing together computational researchers.
To prepare the lab, the team had to ensure safety regulations across different lab types, Hays said. For instance, the team made sure food in the more office-like computational lab couldn’t be contaminated by wet lab experiments.
“Data is being collected … with a variety of biological questions in mind,” Myers said. “You need people that are able to manage that data … which generally requires some computational background.” 
Hays said he hopes the new lab will motivate other University researchers to adopt the approach. As post-doctoral and undergraduate researchers work in the labs alongside embedded computer scientists, they can learn methods and apply those skills elsewhere, he said.  
“With students coming and going,” Hays said, “we’re hoping that by osmosis the computational knowledge can sort of seep into other labs.”
The research team at the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building may also collaborate with outside labs that want to do experiments but don’t have the time or expertise to analyze large data sets, said CBS genetics professor Frank Albert. 
“That’s a very cool combination. If you’re just stuck in the wet lab all the time, there’s certain limitations to that,” said Albert. “It’s very good we’re going to combine the two things, not just conceptual but also physically.” 
Such collaboration will boost the possibilities of specialized research, he said.
“Ideas just arise more when people are just physically close to each other,” Albert said.
The research space will increase the speed of ongoing research as like-minded teams will be able to contribute to each other’s work if needed, said Ran Blekhman, a CBS genomics professor and leader of one of the teams.
“Now we are going to have more interaction with these other labs that do the same research,” he said. ”It’s going to help allow all kinds of interactions that were a little more difficult to achieve before.”