Travis Glenn tapped as interim bioinformatics institute director

After eight years of service, Jessica Kissinger, a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Genetics, is stepping down as director of UGA’s Institute of Bioinformatics. Travis Glenn, associate professor of environmental health science in the College of Public Health, will serve as interim director.

“It was an incredibly educational and eye-opening experience. It’s interesting to see the other side of academic research and where all the regulations come from and why they are there,” Kissinger said of her time leading IOB. “It actually takes some administration to make research and training magic happen.”

While being a scientist entails some administrative skills—running a big research group, for example—running an entire institute at first seemed like a totally different experience, according to Kissinger. But after talking to colleagues with administrative positions and completing a management training program at Harvard, she found that solving administrative challenges wasn’t that different from solving scientific ones.

Kissinger faced two main challenges as IOB director—growing the faculty and finding revenue to support a successful graduate program—and the two challenges were connected. Students generate income for the university through their credit hours. Since IOB had only three part-time faculty at the time, the institute was not able to offer all the classes its students needed. IOB students had to take all of their classes in other departments, and that income was not returning to IOB, the program that recruited and administered them.

“With the quickly changing needs of the life sciences, nearly everybody needed an expert in bioinformatics, but not everybody could train one,” Kissinger said. “I thought, if we could solve those two challenges, then we could have a great program.”

With faculty lines contributed by Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and with startup packages offered by the Office of Research to hire faculty, the institute was able to grow and now has 12 faculty supporting about 50 graduate students. As the faculty grew, the IOB could tailor its curriculum precisely to its students, who previously had to pick up classes offered by other programs and that sometimes carried prerequisites. Now IOB can offer its entire core graduate curriculum in fewer total hours, giving students the flexibility to explore more electives across campus.

Kissinger is proud of IOB’s contributions to the UGA campus, including establishing an educational lunch series, offering training workshops and providing greatly subsidized software licenses. She also takes pride in IOB’s role in training the next generation of life scientists, who will be just as comfortable managing data and algorithms as they are working in traditional laboratory benches.

“Because we have such a strong life science presence in our program, our students are not detached from experimental design.” she said. “That really distinguishes us from the majority of bioinformatics programs out there. There’s a tremendous opportunity to bring together disparate pockets across campus with excellent computational expertise in different aspects of biological sciences.”

She hopes the institute will continue to link greater expertise together under a larger collaborative umbrella. To that end, Kissinger said there are opportunities to grow graduate education at UGA in the Double Dawgs program, adding computational training to students majoring in fields like biochemistry, microbiology, computer science or genetics.

Kissinger credits the success and growth of IOB to its faculty, students and the contributions of a number of partners across UGA, especially the Office of Research and Franklin College, which provided startup funding and salary lines for IOB.

“Jessie did a brilliant job as director and leaves IOB on a very positive path,” said David Lee, vice president for research. “It’s been a pleasure working with her as she built up what’s become a strategic resource for UGA’s research faculty in the life sciences.”

“I look forward to helping the IOB during this transition and to help bring together and shine a light on the gems within IOB and UGA,” Glenn said. “Jessie has been an extraordinary leader for the computational community here.”

–  Alaa Ahmed

Posted on October 11, 2019.

Read at UGA Research News.