By Gillian Woodford
An innovative interdisciplinary PhD program will bridge the gap between the quantitative and biological domains to improve life sciences research.
Quantitative Life Sciences (QLS), a joint venture initiated by the Faculties of Medicine and Science at McGill University and now involving many other faculties, has been given the green light by the Ministère de l’Éducation et l’Enseignement supérieur (MEES). The new program is one of three offered through McGill’s Interfaculty Studies (Biological and Biomedical Engineering and the Integrated Program in Neuroscience are the others) and is currently accepting applicants for September 2019.
“We need researchers who can develop and apply powerful mathematical and computational methods to life sciences research, and thereby help to solve pressing biological and medical challenges,” says inaugural Graduate Program Director for the PhD program, Dr. Celia Greenwood, Professor in the departments of Oncology, Human Genetics and Epidemiology, Biostatistics & Occupational Health, in the Faculty of Medicine. “The current timelines for translational bioscience research can be slow and costly. Often this is because we lack quantitative tools and approaches to work with the enormous datasets currently being generated.”
The new program will equip students to create, improve and apply quantitative methods originating in the fields of mathematics, physics, statistics and computer science to the broad study of biological systems, from single molecules to entire ecosystems.
Key to this is developing algorithms and ready-to-use software, possibly using ideas from a number of different domains. Two QLS PhD scholars are already doing just that. Selin Jessa, working with supervisor Dr. Claudia Kleinman at the Lady Davis Institute recently helped to develop a tool called chromswitch to identify switches in chromatin state (which plays a major role in controlling gene expression) to shed light on epigenetic regulation and its consequences. Alex Diaz-Papkovich, working with Dr. Simon Gravel at the McGill University and Genome Quebec Innovation Centre, is programming statistical software to sort and condense enormous genomic datasets, specifically in the area of population genetics.
The deans of the two faculties see these exchanges as a natural progression of the direction biomedical and scientific research has been taking. “The new PhD program in QLS will harness and enhance the interdisciplinary strengths our Faculty has been fostering over the last several years,” says Dr. David Eidelman, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of Medicine. “This innovative partnership with our colleagues in the Faculty of Science will put us at the vanguard of international medical and life sciences research.”
Dr. R. Bruce Lennox, Dean of Science and Tomlinson Professor of Chemistry at McGill University agrees: “Research problems are not always best identified by their relationship to a defined discipline – Biochemistry or Physics or Computer Science being examples,” he says. “Instead, many research adventures can often be much better defined by being situated at the intersection of traditional disciplines. The QLS PhD program is a new and exciting recognition that some of today’s most compelling research problems arise at this intersection.”