University of Guelph Bioinformatics program review

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1 University of Guelph Bioinformatics program review Review Panel: Professor Bruce German, University of California, Davis Professor Ejaz Ahmed, Brock University, Ontario Overview The panel has been engaged to review the ongoing Bioinformatics program, the recently revised Master s in Bioinformatics (MBinf) degree and the proposed PhD degree in Bioinformatics. The panel received documentation of the various programs prior to the review dates and two days of meetings and discussions were scheduled to permit the panel to interview all of the participants including administration, faculty students staff and support institutions including the Institute for Biodiversity and the Guelph library. The panel committee ended its deliberations highly impressed with the success of these young programs. This is an unusual initiative for a variety of reasons. Unlike traditional degree granting programs tied to departmental disciplines, the Bioinformatics degrees are the result of a combination of scholarship, technologies and courses across multiple disciplines, 11 departments and 4 colleges at Guelph. The effort appears to be well justified. It can be accurately stated that the Bioinformatics education programs are the result of significant push from multiple academic programs at the University and increasingly insistent pull from various Life Sciences and Biotechnology industries. Well executed, this is a University program with a bright future. Diverse faculty from across the University of Guelph campus actively support the Bioinformatics program capably representing the emerging fields of statistics, computational biology and genomics and its allied fields: transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics together with strong established disciplines of Computational Statistics, Genetics and Computer Science. There is evidence of active, ongoing collaborations across these disciplines especially in shared teaching and mentoring of graduate students. There is an obvious opportunity for this team to craft a more formalized research program that is supported by extramural funds from Federal, Provincial and commercial funding mechanisms. The committee identified several key areas for action necessary to resolve immediate deficiencies or pending shortfalls. While the program is clearly strong in bioinformatics from the biological perspective, there is a clear need for informatics specialty faculty. At present, half of the bioinformatics teaching and advising is managed by two non-tenure stream support staff. Regularizing these two positions is necessary to maintaining the program at its current level and it is not possible to imagine significant growth of the overall teaching program without strengthening

2 this area. The recent success of the program has demonstrated unequivocally the importance of the program director and committee. The now very positive overall trajectory of the program has been achieved by intensive efforts by a relatively small number of highly motivated faculty and administrators. The review committee fully expects that the administration of the University of Guelph demonstrate its support for this program by honoring the previous commitment to tangible support for the director and committee, including (but not limited to) course release for the director and a half-time administrative assistant for the program under the supervision of the director. The committee has some concerns that the administration has not fully appreciated the difficulties of managing a program that has such a diversity of faculty and academic units contributing to the MSc and PhD degrees. At present, there is not sufficient administrative staff dedicated to the new program especially through the first couple of years in which everyone will be feeling their way through the issues of students with various backgrounds, taking remedial courses, in different departments, etc., etc. The committee was concerned by the administration s perspective that multiple, independent staff with small percentage appointments apportioned to the support of the Bioinformatics program was equivalent to a single dedicated staff person. The need for a staff that is dedicated to the success of the Bioinformatics program, at least for the initial phase of the Ph.D. program, cannot be overstated. In summary, we recommend enthusiastically to the OCGS that the Bioinformatics program, the two Master s Degrees, related courses and research be continued and support broadened. We also recommend the approval of the proposed PhD program. As formal recommendations to the University of Guelph we suggest that the administrative structure that oversees the Bioinformatics program address immediately: 1 adoption of the support committed for the Bioinformatics program during the initial review (Spring 2008), including a half time support administrator and a one-course release for the program director. 2 identifying and upgrading shared office/interactive/conference space for the program s graduate students located so as to encourage interactions between students and faculty across the disciplines in bioinformatics. 3 developing a strategic plan for the explicit recruitment and support of bioinformatics students both domestically and internationally. 4 implementing an internship program for students to spend time and develop personnel networks with various commercial partners in the bioinformatics industry. The duration, logistics and requirements of the intern program will need to consider the diversity of students, industries and scientific disciplines who are stake holders.

3 5 pursuing an endowed chair to support the program, increase the University s national and International visibility in bioinformatics and recruit or retain a high visibility faculty member. 6 regularizing the positions in the program that carry out informatics support for teaching and advising. This would include providing a computer lab that would support these positions and the teaching mission. For the Bioinformatics program itself, the panel was impressed with the ongoing progress of this fledgling academic program and its potential for future success. The panel suggests that the program consider: 1 establishing an advisory board of industrial executives and academic peers who can identify opportunities for the program to become more visibly and successfully linked to the various commercial users of bioinformatics and bioinformaticians. 2 assembling a multi-investigator research plan that would include Federal funding as a center of research excellence. 3 tasking the administrative support personnel with the routine maintenance of the program s website including faculty and student news, ongoing research and industrial collaborations. This field is likely to be disproportionately web-savvy and the program s website is its most important portal to the scientific community.

4 The Panel Evaluation of the Bioinformatics program at Guelph The panel spent time with various representatives of the Guelph campus, the administration, academic faculty, staff and students (lists appended). The committee was given ample time to discuss diverse issues with these various sectors of the support system for the program and the participants themselves. The committee also spent time touring various facilities with appropriate faculty. These facilities included the plant research program, nutrigenomics program, the biodiversity institute, and the campus library system. The committee was again able to take time visiting with active participants in these facilities and develop a measure of their satisfaction with the quality and support on campus. The panel was very impressed with the quality and diversity of faculty that have committed to this program. The commitment of 9 different academic departments to this initiative speaks volumes for the potential for Guelph to become Canada s leading center of Bioinformatics training and research. The Facilities appropriate to support the program vary from adequate to outstanding. The panel was particularly impressed with the alignment of the program with the plant breeding facilities and nutritional genomics. These are obvious assets of the program going forward and provide a feeding system for qualified students together with appropriate datasets and scientific hypotheses. The panel was also impressed with the program on biodiversity and its potential for synergies arising from a clearer alignment with the bioinformatics program. Similarly, the life sciences programs would benefit from increased access to the bioinformatics expertise on campus. This outstanding International asset provides additional visibility to Guelph s bioinformatics program and provides excellent opportunities for state of the art research questions for its graduates. The panel did not have the time/opportunity to interact with some participants in the overall success of the bioinformatics program and were required to gain insights from peripheral discussions and from supplied documentation or the Guelph website. The programs that would have been valuable to spend time with are: administrative representatives of colleges that are not the host department for the bioinformatics program but are hosts to participating faculty; technology transfer administrators whose role is to recruit and manage intellectual property issues for the bioinformatics program; International scholar recruitment and support.

5 Curriculum Evaluation; Master s The committee spent considerable time scrutinizing the documentation, visiting with faculty and students and touring the facilities currently allocated to the Master s program in Bioinformatics. The committee was enthusiastic about the progress of this young degree program and convinced that it has a large and influential future in the spectrum of scholarship at Guelph. The evidence in the form of data on student growth, faculty satisfaction and student evaluations are all highly supportive of a program that is on a very successful trajectory. Faculty and student satisfaction with the Director and the running of the programs in general was also apparent from the online survey and face to face meetings. With appropriate support from the administration this program should become a major asset of the University and a highly visible demonstration of its contribution to scholarship and to the Province and Nation s scientific reputation. Masters in Bioinformatics (M.Binf.) The coursework Master s program in Bioinformatics at the University of Guelph is one of the unique programs at Guelph and is currently the only formal Master s by coursework program in bioinformatics available in Ontario. The program recruits students from various disciplines across the bioinformatics spectrum from computer based computational tools to nutrigenomics. During , the majority of students was drawn from biological specialty degrees who are looking to expand their computational skills in anticipation of employment opportunities in biotechnology. The students, by self-report, are all targeting the biotechnology industry sector as their career path and perceive that the Master s degree in bioinformatics is a valuable asset in that path. The faculty necessary to designing the curriculum and delivering the formal coursework are all in place and represent a broad and deep body of scholarship within the University of Guelph across a total of 11 different academic units. These are the asset on which the bioinformatics program has reached its current state of maturity. It is the opinion of the committee that the strength of the biological faculty is so substantial that it could easily support a program several fold its current size. However, without regularizing the appointments of two non-tenure track positions in statistical bioinformatics / computational statistics, continuing the present program, much less increasing to realize its full potential would be impossible. The committee recommends that the administration consider that the computational informatics side of the program is an important target for future faculty recruitment. The panel recommends that the program consider building an administrative model to include: 1 a broader recruitment activity to increase students from outside Guelph and outside Canada,

6 2 a more intimate relationship with the biotechnology industry as internship sites and partnerships for student placements, 3 a consideration of remedial coursework curriculum for those students that are moving to the program from unusual backgrounds, 4 designation of student teaching assistantships dedicated specifically to the Bioinformatics program. 5 a plan to establish the M.Binf. as a distance learning program that can be taken via on-line or other electronic based education platforms. 6 recruiting an administrative assistant with specific responsibilities for the Bioinformatics program as a whole and providing a visible point of identity for students. M.Sc. Research Thesis The research Master s program is still building its student base and yet the students in place are performing at a highly competitive level. The committee was very impressed with the quality of these students and their progress to research careers in bioinformatics. As the PhD program comes on line (see recommendations of the committee on the PhD), the specific roles of the research Master s degree may need to be defined as a discrete unit. Nonetheless, the success to date is a compelling argument that this program is viable well into the future. The panel recommends that the program consider developing a long term plan for the MSc Research Thesis to include: 1 a formal internship program with identified partners in the industries using bioinformatics trained scientists, 2 a recruiting strategy for students in the research area of Bioinformatics both within Guelph s undergraduate student body and perhaps more strategically, to campuses around the country, 3 a formal committee of alumni of the program to serve as an ad hoc advisory group for the program as it evolves. These alumni will form a valuable asset in ensuring that the program continues to grow aligned with its appropriate industrial sectors.

7 Ph.D. in Bioinformatics The committee evaluated documentation, conducted discussions with representatives of the Guelph administration, faculty, graduate students, staff and toured various accessory programs to come to its conclusions and recommendations for the establishment of a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics at the University of Guelph. The committee came to the unanimous decision that the University should alert OCGS and proceed immediately to establish the Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and to allocate administrative resources to ensure its rapid growth to a program of national impact. Administrative support. The committee was very convinced by the documentation and the various discussions that the university is solidly behind the Ph.D. degree in Bioinformatics and is prepared to provide the infrastructure, staffing and student support necessary to its success. The major challenges will be to continue to encourage the successful collaboration across multiple disciplines, to recruit sufficient, well trained students in the first few years and to identify and establish relationships with partners in industry that will employ the program s graduates. The committee reiterates the pressing need for a staff that is dedicated to the success of the Bioinformatics program, at least for the initial phase of the Ph.D. program, cannot be overstated. Faculty investment. Multi-disciplinary programs always face barriers within traditional academic departments due to the inevitable conflicts of interest. Faculty are recruited and promoted within a departmental unit structure and the success of a multi-disciplinary program such as Bioinformatics, comes at least in part, at the cost of the contributing departments. The value of the collaborations generated must thus compensate for the cost. For the Guelph Bioinformatics program, the committee is convinced that this value is recognized. The faculty investment in the bioinformatics program is already substantial and unquestionably of sufficient breadth and depth to support a very viable Ph.D. program. Faculty in different fields related to Bioinformatics are already co-mentoring students in their defined disciplinary departments so there should be no problems in explicitly adding the Ph.D. in Bioinformatics. The committee recommends that the various faculty that are involved with the bioinformatics program place greater emphasis on shared Federal and Provincial research grant support for the bioinformatics program and for the training of students. Named fellowships should be viewed as a means to create national visibility for the program and to recruit the top candidate Ph.D. students from across the country. Student satisfaction. The students who join new programs tend to be motivated and disruptive. The committee anticipated that the existing students

8 would share their perceived problems and desires, and they did. The committee was pleased with the frank and open discussions that they had with students and came away confident that the statistics produced by anonymous polling were indeed an accurate reflection of student attitudes. The students of the Bioinformatics program at Guelph are justifiably proud of their program and enthusiastic for its growth. They are satisfied with the overall goals and execution of coursework and mentoring. These complementary sources of feedback provided the committee with considerable confidence that the growing pains of a new graduate training program have largely been recognized and resolved at the stage of Masters degrees and the addition of a Ph.D. program will take advantage of this experience and be immediately successful. Nonetheless, the additional burden of a full Ph.D. program, the greater emphasis on publishing and competitive careers in academics will put demands on the program. The committee recommends: 1 establishing a formal coursework curriculum that defines the boundaries of knowledge that constitute the core of the Ph.D. in Bioinformatics. The program committee will need to oversee recommendations for establishing the means to resolve varying background deficiencies and identify appropriate coursework, etc. The administration will need to be supportive of the demands on the other programs at the University impacted by such remedial coursework needed for the bioinformatics students. 2 establishing a fellowship committee to oversee the recruitment of funds to support named awards for Ph.D. candidates and graduates. Logically this committee would include faculty and professional scientists/executives from industries interested in hiring graduates and for whom identifying elite students would be self serving. 3 recruiting an administrative assistant with specific responsibilities for the Bioinformatics program as a whole and provides a point of identity for students. J. Bruce German Professor Director, Foods for Health Institute Department of Food Science & Technology University of California, Davis Ejaz Ahmed, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Mathematics and Science Brock University St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

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