Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In addition to being a founding father of the United States, Franklin also was a scientist, so he’d probably be interested in the Bioinformatics Graduate Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where another kind of certainty has been in play.
For the last five years every graduate of the program found the work they wanted – a 100-percent job placement rate. Well, almost. It turns out, there’s a tiny wrinkle in that impeccable run of success, according to program director King Jordan.
“It’s a lofty claim, to be sure, that we’ve been at 100 percent for years,” says Jordan, researcher at the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience and associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences. “But there is one person we know for sure that isn’t working right now. He isn’t sure what he wants to do yet. That’s why he isn’t employed.”
For now, 99-plus percent will do. It’s a high success rate, 10 years in the making, since Jordan arrived at Georgia Tech to help develop the bioinformatics curriculum and grow the program.
“The program didn’t have the best record at the time; some of our graduating students were struggling to find employment,” says Jordan, who came to Georgia Tech from the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH.
Jordan and his colleagues revamped the curriculum, emphasizing active learning and practical skills. “We made the program more project oriented,” he says.
One of the first courses, and part of the core curriculum, is programming for bioinformatics. It’s taught largely by Ph.D. students and is a fundamental first-step, designed to bring everyone up to the same speed on the primary tool of the trade – the computer.
“Bioinformatics lies at the intersection of biology and computer science,” Jordan says. “So we have a diverse cross-section of students. At one end are straight biologists, like me. At the other end, we have the programmers.”
Students are given coding assignments every week, and every assignment is grounded in the actual analysis of data.
The computational genomics course takes data analysis up to another level. Students are charged with analyzing sets of genomic sequences from microbial pathogens for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The relationship between the CDC and the Bioinformatics Graduate Program has had far-reaching impact. Jordan and a team of graduate students worked closely with CDC to develop computational tools for microbial genome analysis that helped trace the source of listeria outbreaks in Colorado and an E. coli outbreak in Europe.
“Students are producing products and technology that is being used by the CDC to address real world public health challenges,” says Jordan, whose team developed and teaches the course in collaboration with the CDC.
The tools needed for a course like computational genomics keep changing, so students are expected to stay abreast of an ever-shifting technological landscape, which is moving the science briskly forward. Think about it. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, took 10 years and $3 billion to sequence one genome – something that can be done in a day for about a thousand dollars now.
“If I teach you how to use program X today, by next year it will probably be obsolete,” Jordan says.
Consequently, students are presented with the project goals and the different technical options, and then asked to evaluate which computer programs (which tools, which options) to use in their analysis.
“Mostly, they wind up using a combination of programs,” Jordan says. “It’s cliché, but it’s like teaching them how to fish, how to acquire and evaluate the technology to complete the project.”
While the Georgia Tech curriculum and deep-dive project experience has been an obvious selling point for the job seekers, the market for their services has expanded as well.
“There’s more demand in the market than we can meet,” says Jordan.
The Georgia Tech Bioinformatics Program is trying to help meet the demand by adding more students – this fall’s incoming class of 52 students (40 master’s, 12 PhD) is the biggest in the program’s history, and as usual, they come from a range of backgrounds.
So, what are all of these students doing after they graduate?
For one thing, they’re working in university and research institute labs. Biology is becoming a ‘big data’ science as biologists are generating massive data sets in the era of high-throughput experimentation techniques. Consequently, biologists today need people who are competent in the skills and tools used to analyze those huge data sets.
“The technological revolution in DNA sequencing, which has vastly outpaced increases in computing speed over the last decade, is fundamentally transforming biological sciences in nearly all disciplines,” explains Jung Choi, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, and director of the Professional Science Masters (M.S.) track in the bioinformatics program. Jordan directs the Ph.D. track.
“The explosion of big data in biological sciences created a shortfall in people trained to manage and make sense of the data in the context of biology,” Choi adds. “Bioinformatics, genomics, and computational biology are among the most rapidly advancing fields. In a research setting, our students learn how to evaluate and adapt the best new tools and methods that emerge every year.”
Bioinformatics grads are finding their way into government labs – once again, the CDC has come up big, hiring seven bioinformatics grads from the past two classes. And they’re also going into the private sector.
“Within biotech are two big sectors that are frequent employers of our graduates,” says Jordan. “The pharmaceutical industry and the agriculture industry.”
Then there is another route some students are choosing as a result of the research-intensive nature of the bioinformatics program. About a quarter of the Master’s students choose to continue their education and enter Ph.D. programs.
“M.S. students can go right away to pharmaceutical companies and make big bucks, but some who are exposed to research are becoming passionate about that, so they decide to go on and pursue the Ph.D.,” Jordan says. “That’s what I call an unanticipated benefit of our revamped focus.”
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience