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ASU leads effort to establish national bioinformatics standards for life sciences undergraduates

New curriculum to help students prepare for current job market

ASU life science students will learn bioinformatics

Melissa Wilson Sayres (standing center), lead author of the study and assistant professor with ASU School of Life Sciences, says providing undergraduate life sciences students with bioinformatics skills will help prepare them for the current job market.

June 06, 2018

As technology changes, so does the need for a workforce that can rapidly adapt to new ways of mining important research data. 

In the life sciences, the use of bioinformatics — a relatively new scientific discipline that combines elements of computer science and statistics to solve problems in biology — has become a critical technique in modern-day research.

However, there is a widespread gap nationally on what the science industry needs and what undergraduate students in the natural sciences are being taught. In a new study, researchers from Arizona State University, along with a team of 34 scientists from 26 other institutions across the country, have identified nine core competencies in bioinformatics that students seeking a life sciences degree should possess.

The findings were published online June 5 in the journal PLOS One. The authors of the study are part of an NSF-funded national Research Coordination Network called the “Network for Integrating Bioinformatics into Life Sciences Education” (NIBLSE). 

To address the lack of bioinformatics knowledge among life sciences students, the team sought to establish an agreed-upon set of bioinformatics core competencies. The scientists used a survey to gather information on bioinformatics. More than 1,200 biology faculty representing colleges and universities from all 50 states responded.

“It's so exciting to me that ASU is one of the institutions leading the future of undergraduate training in computational life sciences, emphasizing competencies and skills that our undergraduates need to succeed and lead in a changing world,” said Melissa Wilson Sayres, assistant professor with the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Wilson Sayres served as lead author of the study and led the computational analyses for the project: differences across demographic groups, including by year of degree received; previous bioinformatics training; institution size; gender; and ethnicity. She assessed how responses varied along each of these dimensions. 

ASU School of Life Sciences professor Kenneth Buetow is a human genetics and genomics researcher who uses computational tools to understand complex traits such as cancer, liver disease and obesity. As the director of ASU’s Computational Science and Informatics Core Program, Buetow said he believes this paper is important in helping to establish a rigorous curriculum for the life sciences. 

“Computational competency is essential to the success of 21st-century life scientist,” Buetow shared. “This paper represents an insightful set of competencies assembled by leaders from across bioinformatics and address a critical need in life sciences curriculum. The NIBLSE core competencies are an important first step in recognizing bioinformatics and a full partner in the life sciences.”

The research team identified nine areas of bioinformatics core competencies to focus on, including using bioinformatics tools to examine complex biological problems in evolution and information flow; interpreting the ethical, legal, medical and social implications of biological data; and writing computer programs that solve biological problems.

Wilson Sayres added: “Life sciences research is becoming increasingly computationally-rooted; with this research, we provide evidence-based competencies in bioinformatics to serve our undergraduate students.”

These competencies will serve as a guide for higher education institutions as they work to integrate bioinformatics into their life science curricula. The group is now working to identify relevant assessment tools and faculty development materials to help align classroom lessons with the competencies.

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