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New degree reflects changes in biology

The MIT faculty's Feb. 18 approval of a new Ph.D. degree in computational and systems biology mirrors a nationwide phenomenon -- a response to a rapid, fundamental shift in biology research and education.

Researchers in the emerging field of systems biology are developing an interdisciplinary approach to questions of biological complexity. "This has happened so fast it is astonishing," MIT's Evelyn Fox Keller, professor of the history and philosophy of science, told The Boston Globe in a Feb. 17 article headlined "The big picture: Revolutionary biologists begin to ask how the pieces they've studied for decades fit together to make life work."

The leaders of the "new biology" from across the United States discussed the challenges caused by these changes at last month's symposium sponsored by MIT's Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi -- see MIT Tech Talk, Jan. 14). They agreed that an essential ingredient for the success of the transformed field is a supply of biologists who have been trained to work with colleagues in other disciplines who have complementary skills and perspectives.

"The turn of the century seems a good time to rethink undergraduate biology education for students who are interested in pursuing research careers," said David Botstein, who directs the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.

Most of the systems biology programs are establishing new interdisciplinary courses. Botstein, however, wants to turn the first two years of undergraduate biology education on its head by offering a fully integrated science curriculum that introduces essential concepts of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science on a "just-in-time" basis in the context of a fundamental biological problem.

"What's exciting at MIT is not only that we are first to launch a new Ph.D. program, but that we already developed a series of completely new 'foundation' courses in computational and systems biology," said Peter Sorger, CSBi director and associate professor in biology and biological engineering. "Most importantly, at MIT we're in a unique position to draw on diverse expertise in engineering, computer science and biology, and an academic culture that encourages cross-disciplinary research and teaching."

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