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NSF, NIH give $5.2 million to UC Berkeley to train scientists for the post-genome world
30 Aug 2000

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

  Health Sciences Initiative

Berkeley - Two grants from the federal government totaling $5.2 million over the next five years will help the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, train graduate students in the physical, biological and computational approaches needed to tackle problems in the post-genome era.

The National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Research Institute has awarded the campus $2.5 million over five years to fund a Berkeley Program in Genomics and Computational Biology, which will train graduate students to deal with the explosion of genomic information now revolutionizing the fields of biology and medicine.

In addition, the National Science Foundation (NSF) granted UC Berkeley $2.7 million over five years to train graduate students in the physical biosciences, which entails applying mathematical and physical principles to biological questions. The grant, one of 19 Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Training grants totaling $49 million, was announced this month by NSF.

Both grants will provide support for graduate students as they pursue interdisciplinary studies in fields that increasingly use technology to answer questions about biology and health. The grants tie in with the campus's Health Sciences Initiative, which pulls together researchers in a broad range of fields to tackle health-related problems in the new century.

"This jump-starts the graduate training component of the Health Sciences Initiative, funding students who will think about health science problems from a new perspective," said Daniel Rokhsar, a professor of physics and a lead investigator on both grants. Last month he was appointed acting associate director for computational genomics at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif.

"One of the problems in interdisciplinary fields is how to get students who already have a sophistication in one field to think creatively in another. These grants marshal the strengths of every science department on campus, plus LBNL and the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Center, to train multidisciplinary scientists in biophysics, structural biology, genomics and newer fields like proteomics."

Already two new graduate level courses have been inaugurated: physical and computational genomics, and an introduction to biophysics. Rokhsar anticipates four or five more interdisciplinary courses over the next few years.

"The beauty of this is the kinship of people across campus who are creating a different dimension in basic research," said Ehud Isacoff, an associate professor of molecular and cell biology and director of the Biophysics Graduate Program. He, Rokhsar and Carlos Bustamante, professor of physics, chemistry and molecular and cell biology, are the lead investigators on the NSF grant for the physical biosciences. All three are faculty scientists in the Physical Biosciences Division at LBNL.

"With the nearing completion of the genome project, we'll have access to all the genetic pieces, but we still don't know how the resulting proteins assemble and function dynamically as a molecular machine," Isacoff said. "To understand this increasingly requires a biophysical approach, which means the ability to use or develop special kinds of apparatus, and facility with mathematical analysis and computer number crunching.

"Biologists don't necessarily get that training, and physical scientists don't have the biological background. We're going to fill that gap."

One of the major emphases will be training students to use these new technologies to extract useful information from the detailed sequence of the human genome. These new technologies include gene chips, microarrays, robots, sequencing machines, and new techniques for determining the three-dimensional structure of proteins. The training grants will support approximately 25 additional graduate students in the areas of biophysics and genomics, plus a half dozen post-doctoral fellows.

One of the goals of UC Berkeley's Health Sciences Initiative is to build two new research buildings at a combined cost of more than $300 million to house interdisciplinary programs like biophysics, bioengineering, structural biology and genomics.

"Up to now we've had support for buildings and research; the missing ingredient has been funding for students," Isacoff said.

The Berkeley Program in Genomics involves over 30 research groups actively working to develop new technologies for the rapid acquisition of biological information on a genomic scale, to exploit these technologies to solve essential biomedical problems, and to create new computational approaches to analyzing the resulting data.

The Biophysics Graduate Program currently involves about 40 faculty and some 30 graduate students. With the help of the NSF grant, it should expand to as many as 60 graduate students.


For information on the various programs involved, check their web sites:

Berkeley Program in Genomics and Computational Biology

Biophysics Graduate Program

UC Berkeley's Health Sciences Initiative

LBNL's Life Sciences Division

LBNL's Physical Biosciences Division


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