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Where computers meet biology

[photo]
The curriculum strives for a balance between the biological and computer sciences.

August 26, 2015—

Launched only one year ago, LAU’s undergraduate program in bioinformatics already boasts 30 students. Among them is Joseph Saad, who transferred in last year from a major in biology. “I’m interested in personalized medicine,” he says. “A biology degree could only help me understand the biological aspects of drug design and prepare me for trial and error research. With bioinformatics, drug development is more precise and accurate.”

This summer, Saad pursued an internship at a hospital research center in France. Some of his fellow students spent the summer months conducting research at LAU with Georges Khazen, the assistant professor in charge of the bioinformatics program. Their experience was enhanced by access to the powerful servers purchased by the department with the aid of a half-million dollar ASHA grant. “Over 30 percent of my students will likely go on to be researchers, working on the development of new drugs and new algorithms,” says Khazen. “We are now in an era of personalized and predictive medicine, brought on by the ability to run full genome sequences affordably in only a couple of days,” he adds.

Such advances have created billions of data points which biologists simply cannot analyze on paper. The growing field of bioinformatics initially developed in response to this challenge, with impressive results.  “It speeds up the process of drug design exponentially,” says Khazen, whose fascination with biology and ease around computers led him to specialize at the universities of Oxford and Lausanne in what was, a decade ago, a relatively young discipline. “Before bioinformatics, everything was done experimentally and then validated. Now we can simulate interactions of drugs experiments in one day.”

Drug development is but one of a number of sub-disciplines in which bioinformatics students may specialize at the postgraduate level. While some graduates of the pre-med program will go on to study medicine, Saad is considering a post-graduate degree in biochemistry or chemoinformatics. “This degree has prepared me for that in a way no other program can, giving me the skills to use computational tools to enhance my understanding of biology,” he enthuses.

The curriculum strives for a balance between the biological and computer sciences, with students studying core courses in each before being introduced to the specialized courses in the program’s final years. “Our graduates will be fully qualified and capable biologists and computer scientists, able to work in pharmaceutical companies, as computer analysts and even in business management,” asserts Khazen, who designed the program curriculum and personally delivers the specialized courses.

“Bioinformaticians can see problems from different perspectives and across disciplines, making them highly employable both in the region and internationally,” he says.


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