Managing Data Overload

As 21st-century scientists probe the depths of the human genome and explore other facets of our biological universe, the amount of data gathered threatens to overwhelm our ability to make use of the fruits of all this research.

iQBS Director Jason Moore leads an initiative that integrates biology and computer science in the search for new knowledge. (photo by Eli Burak ’00)

“We are undergoing an information explosion and an understanding implosion,” says Jason Moore, the Third Century Professor of Genetics and director of bioinformatics at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS). “The more data we collect, the less we actually understand about the problems because we are just mired in this data nightmare.”

The burgeoning field of bioinformatics, notes Moore, trains scientists at the intersection of computer science and biology, giving them the quantitative skills to analyze and make productive use of this mass of information. He directs Dartmouth’s Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences (iQBS) that is working to develop, advance, and support interdisciplinary education, research, and infrastructure in the quantitative biomedical sciences including bioengineering, bioinformatics, biophysics, biostatistics, computational biology, epidemiology, mathematical biology, and related areas.

Operated jointly by the College and DMS, the institute is working with other centers and departments on campus to recruit new faculty and cross-train researchers already on board. Moore plans to add five new faculty members to the iQBS team.

“Currently, we are partnering with the DMS Department of Genetics to recruit two new bioinformatics faculty and applications are coming in,” says Moore. “We will want these quantitative scientists to not only establish their own cutting-edge research programs, but to interact with all the people that are collecting these large amounts of data that need collaborative help.”

Moore was recently awarded an $11 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that establishes iQBS as an NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE). The goal of the grant is to support faculty recruitment, faculty research, and faculty mentoring as well as bioinformatics infrastructure.

One element of this infrastructure already in place is the Discovery supercomputer, comprising more than 1,000 computer processors networked together to provide high-performance computing support to the whole campus.

“There are people from humanities as well as the sciences that are using the machine. The institute has dedicated money along with the COBRE grant to support that as an infrastructure for the whole College,” says Moore.

In addition to its research pursuits, iQBS has an education program that will reach from undergraduate students to postdoctoral trainees. One of the faculty recruits Moore is pursuing will be responsible for an undergraduate research program at the institute. A new graduate program in quantitative biomedical sciences welcomed its first entering class this fall. It is offered within DMS, but Moore hopes it will evolve into a degree-granting program that will be open to anyone campus-wide. The institute also has a successful ongoing NIH-funded postdoctoral training program.

With all this work underway, Moore believes Dartmouth is responding well to the challenge of coping with the ever-increasing volume of new scientific data, a goal he has been pursuing since arriving at the College seven years ago.

“I think we are covering the whole spectrum of our quantitative sciences needs: undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate training; faculty mentoring; and faculty recruitment,” he says. “It’s nice to see it all coming together.”