January 19, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 8

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    HHMI supports new program for biophysical collaborations

    By Catherine Gianaro
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    As scientific queries continue to grow increasingly complex, biologists, computer scientists, physicists and chemists are teaming up to find the answers.

    A unique graduate program in biophysical dynamics and self-organization,which will train students for the ever-increasing amount of collaboration across the sciences, is being funded by a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

    Tobin Sosnick, Associate Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and the Institute of Biophysical Dynamics, will direct the new Chicago program. The program will foster an environment where students can learn techniques from across the biological, physical and computer sciences by admitting annually only 10 to 15 students and by incorporating a laboratory class during the program’s first year.

    “I don’t know of anything like this in the country,” Sosnick said, adding that he hopes the curriculum will help physical scientists begin to learn how to identify meaningful biological issues, and allow students in all disciplines to “get their feet wet” and learn to collaborate in the lab.

    Sosnick’s own mixed science background gives him perspective. During the mid-1980s, he was trained as a low-temperature physicist at Harvard University. Currently, he is working in Chicago’s biochemistry department and the Institute of Biophysical Dynamics, and regularly collaborates with professors in chemistry on his research—protein and RNA folding.

    “This was well-timed. It was a confluence of events, stars aligning,” Sosnick said, referring to the simultaneous award announcement and the recent opening of Chicago’s newest research facility, the Center for Integrative Science. The innovative building, along with the Institute of Biophysical Dynamics, was created with the intention of bringing together physical and biological scientists in hopes that the proximity will lead to increased collaborations across divisional lines.

    “From its conception, one of the primary objectives of the institute has been the creation of a cross-disciplinary graduate program at the interface of the physical and the biological sciences,” said Stephen Kent, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Chemistry, and Director of the Institute of Biophysical Dynamics and co-director of the grant. “Such a program is essential to recruit the most outstanding graduate students, as well as to recruit and retain outstanding interdisciplinary faculty.”

    Once the HHMI funding for the new graduate program runs out after its three-year span, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (one of the National Institutes of Health) plans to secure support, according to HHMI President Thomas Cech. The groups decided to partner together on this project, noting the importance of cross-disciplinary research in each of their specific areas.