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Bioinformatics off to slow start

Only four months after gaining final approval from the Academic Council, the new bioinformatics doctoral program is up and running, though it has experienced its share of growing pains.

The new program has yet to establish a class of degree candidates or name a permanent director of studies, and one of its four courses came dangerously close to not having an instructor this semester.

"We're giving courses and all, but because we weren't approved until the spring we don't have a class this year," said James Siedow, vice provost for research and interim director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. "We're in the process of getting things together to start recruiting."

The new degree follows a highly successful certificate program in bioinformatics. The degree is administered through the CBCB, one of the five centers encompassing the University's genomics institute.

"We have had many inquiries concerning the Ph.D. program," said Dr. Jeffery Vance, professor of neurology and associate professor of genetics, who is director of the certificate program. "It's a new program that will take about a year to really get started. This spring will be [the start of] the normal graduate school process of accepting applications from the outside."

Four classes--two new ones, and two upgraded from half-semester to full-semester courses--are being offered this semester, Siedow said. However, an upgraded course in statistical genetics almost never happened, as a Duke professor in late August decided not to teach the class.

Duke first looked unsuccessfully to internally fill the spot, but then turned to the Bioinformatics Research Center at North Carolina State University. Dahlia Nielsen, a research assistant professor of statistics at N.C. State, agreed to take the position.

Nielsen said she received a call about filling the spot Aug. 22, four days before classes began.

"I considered the pros and cons of doing it; Duke was obviously in a situation where they needed someone," Nielsen said. She added that the class has proceeded smoothly, and that in her limited time at the University, she has been impressed with the fledgling program and its students.

"So far I have liked the class," said Jack McNulty, a graduate student in the statistical genetics course. "It is harder than I expected, but Dahlia not only knows this stuff, but she is really interested in helping the students to understand [everything]."

McNulty added that the late scrambling by the University to find an instructor was somewhat disconcerting.

"On one hand, it is great that Duke can offer classes at this level of such a relatively cutting-edge field," he said. "On the other hand, it says something about where Duke is when we need to hire teachers from N.C. State to teach our higher-level stuff."

Siedow also noted the University is still in search of a permanent director of the CBCB and that he is hopeful that one may be found by the end of the calendar year.

"I signed on to do this three years ago for only one year. I feel like we've got to find one. I have a day job," Siedow said.