20 years and counting

GCC bioinformatics training grant wins fifth competitive renewal

One of the Texas Medical Center’s (TMC) longest-running federal grants — a training grant for pre- and postdoctoral fellows in biomedical informatics that was first awarded to Rice University 20 years ago — has been renewed for another five years following a competitive review process by the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The $4.1 million multidisciplinary, multi-institutional grant will fund graduate students and postdoctoral trainees at Rice and five other institutions that make up the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) and its training arm, the Keck Center for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences, which manages the NLM Training Program (NLMTP).

Tony Gorry

Tony Gorry

“From the outset, we promoted multidisciplinary training that links pre- and postdoctoral fellows with faculty experts across a range of disciplines, including computer science, cognitive science, computational and applied mathematics, statistics, chemistry, biochemistry, cell biology, microbiology, molecular genetics — and increasingly with physicians at our participating institutions,” said principal investigator Tony Gorry, Rice’s Friedkin Chair in Management and professor of computer science, who has directed the training program since its inception.

Gorry said one of the most successful elements of the training is its mentoring program. Each trainee is assigned two mentors, one expert in computation or mathematics and another in biomedicine or health care. This dual mentoring better prepares trainees to work across disciplines and helps stimulate the development of new avenues of attack on complex biomedical problems, he said.

Keck Center Chair Montgomery Pettitt, director of the Sealy Center for Structural Biology and Molecular Biophysics at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, said, “Much of the spectacular and long-lived success of the Keck Center for Interdisciplinary Bioscience runs through the NLM training grant. The original training philosophy and structure for that grant form the pattern for our other programs and methods of training.”

The NLMTP is the largest of six competitively funded training programs overseen by the Keck Center.

“The NLM training program is a model for successful inter-institutional and interdisciplinary training programs and the envy of other institutions and consortia.” said George Stancel, a member of the GCC oversight committee and executive vice president for academic and research affairs at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “Dr. Gorry, the other program leaders, and the participating training faculty deserve a great amount of credit for a terrific job.”

Gorry said many of the trainees who have completed training in the NLMTP within the past 10 years are now in visible and productive positions. “For example, 11 are full-time faculty members in ranks from assistant to full professor, and 13 are informatics specialists in clinical and industrial settings,” Gorry said. “A number of our recent Ph.D. graduates are engaged in further training as postdoctoral fellows.”

Rathindra Bose, a GCC oversight committee member and vice president for research and technology transfer at the University of Houston (UH), said, “The level of collegiality and interdisciplinary collaboration that has come through the GCC’s Keck Center training is providing faculty and trainees a competitive advantage and is accelerating the scope of translational research. For two decades, faculty and students who have been part of this training have greatly benefitted from it, and the ongoing support will continue to reap benefits to the participants, the community and the University of Houston.”

Hiram “Gil” Gilbert, dean of the graduate school of biomedical sciences at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), said, “For more than 20 years, the NLM Training Program and the Keck Center have provided an innovative, collaborative and inter-institutional training environment that is unparalleled in the training of Ph.D. scientists and bioinformaticians. The impact of this program on the Houston-Galveston bioscience research community has been enormous, and it continues to serve as an outstanding model for building collaboration in research and training.”

The five-year grant for GCC’s NLM training program was one of 14 awarded by at the NLM this year.

“In this era of the 1,000 Genomes Project, regional health data repositories, virtual clinical trials and real-time tracking of disease outbreaks, the need for trained scientists who understand the complex health-information landscape and can render it more tractable is greater than ever,” said NLM Director Donald Lindberg.

GCC members include Rice, BCM, UTHealth, UTMB, UH and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. NLMTP trainees and their dual mentors are drawn from across the six institutions.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.