Professor Reinhard Laubenbacher testifies at congressional hearing on 21st century biology
Reinhard Laubenbacher, professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and the Department of Mathematics at Virginia Tech, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education on Tuesday, June 29 in Washington, D.C.
The hearing was convened to examine the future of the biological sciences in the 21st century.
In 2009, a seminal National Research Council report proposed a national initiative to promote a new biology that focuses on problem-centric, interdisciplinary research in the life sciences to help solve societal challenges in health, food, energy, and the environment. Laubenbacher was invited by Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and other members of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee to discuss some of the grand research challenges at the interface of biology and mathematics.
He was also called upon to provide his personal insight on ways to strengthen interdisciplinary scientific collaborations as well as the training and education of tomorrow’s workforce in the life sciences.
Laubenbacher has served as vice president for science policy for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) since 2009. A white paper produced by SIAM on opportunities at the interface between the mathematical and computational sciences and the life sciences helped shape his testimony.
Said Laubenbacher: “The bottleneck in biology is shifting toward data analysis. Breakthroughs in mathematics, statistics, and the computational sciences will be necessary to assure that data analysis can keep up with data generation. New approaches to information analysis, data, and modeling are needed to advance our understanding of the natural world.” In his written testimony, Laubenbacher provided a detailed list of areas of mathematical research that had the potential to bring significant benefits to biology.
In an opening statement to the subcommittee, Lipinski remarked: “As a former university professor, I’ve seen firsthand the difficulty of overcoming cultural and institutional barriers between academic departments and schools. Even within a single discipline […] researchers often stay safely within their subspecialties. But the potential successes that can be realized by having interdisciplinary teams working on biological problems mean that we need to ensure these collaborations continue to grow.”
Laubenbacher says he believes one of the most important lessons to be drawn from his personal experience at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is the merit of integration of different areas of research expertise into one physical and administrative structure. This structure should be problem centric rather than discipline centric and can serve as an important accelerator of interdisciplinary research. Said Laubenbacher: “While this is common practice in industry, it is less so in academe.”
In his testimony, Laubenbacher stressed the importance of integrated teaching curricula and research experiences as a lynchpin of undergraduate education for interdisciplinary biology. In graduate education, he emphasized that both departmental and interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs can be very effective in preparing students for research in the new biology.
Said Laubenbacher: “Integration of curricula, the need for balance between diversity and depth of training, and the opportunity to develop a common culture across disciplines are key goals for graduate education. Federal support for efforts to align graduate education with these goals is needed, as creating and maintaining such programs requires a major investment in time and resources.”
The Research and Science Education Subcommittee hearing was convened to examine how research at the intersection of the physical sciences, engineering, and biology might help to address some of the formidable research challenges the world faces in energy, the environment, agriculture, materials, and manufacturing.
Other speakers at the hearing included: Keith Yamamoto, chair of the Life Science Section, National Academy of Sciences, and professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco; James Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment, Department of Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Science, Arizona State University; Joshua Leonard, assistant professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Northwestern University; Karl Sanford, vice president of technology development, Genencor.