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VBI, others receive grant to support cyberinfrastructure education and outreach initiative


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 26, 2005 – The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech, along with Bluefield State College in West Virginia and the Galileo Magnet High School in Danville, Va., have received a $250 000 grant to support a forward-looking initiative for education in cyberinfrastructure. The funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will be used over a period of two years to develop and implement the new course, broaden access of high school and undergraduate students to computer-related technologies, and to encourage trained students to pursue careers in informatics-related projects.

“This financial support offers a unique opportunity to create an interdisciplinary educational program that encourages the application of diverse fields of science such as computer science, biology, mathematics and statistics through a project-centric learning approach,” said Oswald Crasta, director of bioinformatics at VBI’s Cyberinfrastructure Group and the principal investigator on this grant. “By introducing students at an early stage to the science of bioinformatics and, in particular, the concept and practice of cyberinfrastructure, we hope to provide them with the information and skills that will propel them into highly rewarding, technologically oriented careers in the years ahead.”

Crasta added: “This program is specially designed for students who might otherwise not have the chance to undergo formal training in bioinformatics. This is an exciting opportunity for us to work with the faculty at Bluefield State College and Galileo Magnet High School to design and implement a flexible, scaleable course matching their needs for many years to come.” Stephen Cammer, senior bioinformatics scientist, and Susan Faulkner, bioinformatics outreach and education coordinator, will serve as co-principal investigators.

Cyberinfrastructure is a relatively new term for research environments in which advanced computational, data acquisition and management services are made available to researchers through high-performance computer networks. The work that is envisaged in the outreach program is consistent with the published recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure.1 One of the findings of this report, which was prepared by Daniel Atkins and colleagues in January 2003, emphasizes the significant educational dimensions needed to support cyberinfrastructure initiatives.

To support a combination of lectures, discussion groups and intensive workshops, staff from all three institutions will jointly develop a wide range of materials, including project and course notes as well as an instructor’s manual. One of the projects will be a hands-on workshop requiring an emergency response to a hypothetical pathogen outbreak. For this scenario, students will work with experts in areas of infectious-disease management to generate, analyze and interpret a wide range of high throughput genomics data via analytical tools running on a state-of-the-art computer grid. The data will be used to allow experts in public health to develop appropriate control measures for a disease outbreak. The main focus will be integration of multiple disciplines to solve ‘real life’ challenges.

Bill Lawrence, principal of the Galileo Magnet High School and a collaborator on this grant, said “I believe this addition to our curriculum will have a major impact on the scope and range of educational opportunities that we are able to offer. We pride ourselves on teaching courses on those technologies that will allow our students to join the workforce of the 21st century. This partnership with VBI, the National Science Foundation and Bluefield State College is a perfect fit in this respect.”

“We are very pleased to be part of what we see as a groundbreaking educational project for our students and faculty,” said Frank Hart, dean of Engineering Technology and Computer Science at Bluefield State College and a collaborator on this grant. “Initiatives of this type have the potential to drive economic development in our region by making sure that we are providing our students, future members of the workforce, with the right balance of skills in key high-technology areas.”

The award was approved by the National Science Foundation on Sept 16.

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech has a research platform centered on understanding the “disease triangle” of host-pathogen-environment interactions. With almost $49 million in extramural research funding awarded to date, VBI researchers are working on many human, crop, and animal diseases.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become the largest university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.

1 Revolutionizing science and engineering through cyberinfrastructure: Report of the National Science Foundation blue-ribbon advisory panel on cyberinfrastructure, January 2003.