Scientists map the future of genomics research in new lab
By Steven Schultz
Princeton NJ -- What do engineers, biologists, chemists and physicists all have in common? By the end of January, it will be their lab and office space in Princeton's Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.
The institute celebrates its official start this month with the opening of the Carl Icahn Laboratory, where it will be housed. A group of six Princeton faculty members will be the first to move in, bringing together scientists from the departments of molecular biology, physics, chemical engineering and computer science. The number of research groups is expected to grow to about 12 in the next few years.
More than just an eclectic set of neighbors, these scientists share a common set of interests that exemplify the mission of the new institute to study and teach biology in an entirely new way. "We are recognizing that biology has become, in the post-genome-sequence period, an information science and these young people are world leaders in that intersection of biology and information science," said David Botstein, a genetics pioneer who will become the institute's director in July.
As an inaugural event, the institute will sponsor a symposium, "Genomics: Connecting Basic Biology to Disease," on Friday, Jan. 17 (see related story on page 7). The speakers will set out the long-term possibilities for how the new era of biology is likely to affect people's health and daily lives. But for now, scientists at the institute will be focusing on their new opportunities for working together to tackle some of the most fundamental questions in biology and for training new generations of scientists to do the same.
Chief among the scientific questions is how thousands of genes, unthinking strings of chemical units, work in concert to create a single living organism. Tackling such large problems, said Botstein and other institute scientists, demands the combined expertise of many fields, particularly the skills of scientists who use mathematics and computing to draw underlying principles from huge data sets.
The need for interaction has been a driving element in both the conceptual and physical design of the institute, which is located south of the Lewis Thomas Laboratory. Working closely with the institute's founding director Shirley M. Tilghman, now Princeton's president, architect Rafael Viñoly designed the Icahn Lab for maximum flexibility and collaboration. Large blocks of lab and office space can support any kind of work, from animal studies to heavy-duty computation. Offices for those doing computational research are interspersed among those for faculty doing benchtop experiments. A sweeping atrium spans the south side of the building (facing Pardee Field) and connects the wings, offering a grand, yet welcoming common space.
Bringing people together
Of course, said physicist Bill Bialek, the scientists could get by working in their individual departments, e-mailing each other and trying to meet when they could. "But if you want to see some real mixing, you need to bring people together," he said. "In practice, our intellectual lives are very much affected by the person in the office next door, the people you bump into every day."
For Bialek, a professor of physics who studies complex patterns of nerve transmissions, those direct neighbors will be Mona Singh, an assistant professor of computer science who is developing computational methods for analyzing all of an organism's genes at once, and Saeed Tavazoie, an assistant professor of molecular biology who has degrees in both biophysics and medicine and looks for mathematical principles behind the mechanisms cells use to turn genes on and off.
In another section of the building will be John Hopfield, who was once a professor in the physics department and is now in molecular biology studying how information is coded and computed among neurons; Stanislav Shvartsman, an assistant professor of chemical engineering who studies chemical reaction dynamics within and between cells; and David Tank, a professor with a joint appointment in molecular biology and physics who measures and analyzes neural circuits.
More than the opportunity for formal collaborations, the scientists are looking forward to just having a chance conversation. "Often you have a conversation, and it turns out that the thing that's important is the part you remember later in the shower," said Bialek. "If you have to make an appointment to follow up on the idea, you might never do it. But if you meet again the next day, you say 'We were talking about this yesterday and now here is my question ....'"
Just as important as the chance for faculty to work together is the opportunity for their students to interact and experience their education in an environment where such collaborations are the standard instead of an exception.
"The major focus for the institute is education at both the undergraduate and graduate level at this interface of biology and quantitative science," said Botstein.
Singh, who as a computer scientist did her postdoctoral work at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said the only way for students to translate skills from one field to another is to have deep exposure to more than one discipline early in their training. "That was very enriching for me, so I expect that will be enriching for them," she said.
Although they are only now officially coming together as a group, the institute scientists already have jumped into the task of designing a new curriculum that reflects their emerging mode of research. Shvartsman, Bialek, Tank and molecular biologist Ted Cox co-taught a fall semester course called "Topics in Biological Dynamics," which looked at quantitative approaches to studying biological data. Singh and Tavazoie co-taught a course, "Introduction to Genomics and Computational Molecular Biology," in the fall.
In many ways, faculty members will become students again too as they branch out into new areas and ask questions that they never thought were relevant to their fields. For that to happen, said Bialek, the institute members need an informal and close-knit atmosphere. "You have to have an environment in which someone can say something dumb," he said. "If we want to learn something about what's going on in other fields, we have to be free to be stupid."
For Shvartsman, branching into new areas will mean adding an experimental component to his research program, which had been entirely theoretical and computational. "It is hard, but very exciting," he said. "I have a microscope that is in a box under my desk and I have tons of boxes in the room where my student is working." The graduate student, Lea Goentoro, who will be using the equipment, is being co-advised by molecular biologist Trudi Schupbach. "She is doing fruit fly genetics by day and solving differential equations by night," he said. "I think it's quite incredible that there will be lots of people like that" in the institute.
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