By Christian Loeffler
No new students can enroll with a bioinformatics major since the program has been “shut down” as of this semester, according to Dr. Michael Sierk, assistant professor of bioinformatics.
Sierk has taught bioinformatics at Saint Vincent College since 2005 and stated that he is the only one who teaches such courses on campus.
“It’s primarily low interest [with] not enough students wanting to do it,” Sierk explained. “We had between eight and sixteen [bioinformatics students] for about the last eight years or something like that. Right now, there are nine.”
Five of the students in the program are seniors and some of the non-seniors are changing majors.
Sierk stated that there are not many students who are interested in both biology and computing – the two disciplines from which the field draws – with the overlap being relatively small.
Sierk said that the choice to end bioinformatics was not made lightly and that there was a process into which input was considered. The Educational Policies Committee, responsible for approving new majors and minors, made the decision with strong influence from faculty members such as Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. John Smetanka and Boyer School Dean Dr. Stephen Jodis.
A new data science major is being considered with possible approval as early as next fall, Sierk said.
He also stated that current, non-senior bioinformatics majors will be able to complete the major without needing to switch to an alternate program.
“It could be an independent study [or] it could be online,” Sierk said.
For research projects, Sierk explained that students will likely be matched with a biology professor or advisor with some computational background.
“I’m actually planning to leave Saint Vincent, but I don’t know exactly when that is going to happen,” Sierk said. “While I’m here, I can still help advise them on their research project and proposal.”
There were only two bioinformatics-specific courses, meaning that students who are in related fields such as biology should not expect a drastic impact in terms of course options.
Senior bioinformatics majors Nicholas Chadwick and Brian Cignetti gave their thoughts on their major’s elimination. They both agreed with Sierk that interest in the field is low. However, they also said the program may not have received proper attention due to a failure to promote it.
“I don’t think most people realize that we have a bioinformatics major,” Chadwick stated. “I think that it wasn’t really advertised and [that] it’s just a tiny little subsection on the school’s [website].”
“You go to tell someone about bioinformatics on campus, and they are surprised that is even a major,” Cignetti said.
The students said ignorance of the field itself could be another factor.
“They have no idea what it entails or means,” Chadwick said.
Sierk agreed with this idea.
“Bioinformatics just sounds weird,” he said.
Chadwick explained the field as “a combination of biology and computer science [where] analytical tools from computer science [can be used to] answer biological questions.” He described it as an “offspring of the human genome project,” which was an international project to map the human genome in 1990.
“We have a whole bunch of genetic data […] but we have very few people to actually sift through it,” Chadwick said.
He said there are not enough highly skilled people with interest in the career path.
“It looks really good on an application just because not too many people have it,” he said.
Cignetti said that the program was a good blend of two growing fields.
“It’s my major and I’m really sad to see it go, but at least I’m able to still go through and get my degree,” Cignetti said.
Chadwick said that there are still ways to accommodate for the missing major, such as double majoring in biology and computer science. However, the elimination results in a loss of diversification in science programs offered, he said.
While the major was not large, Chadwick said, the group was “kind of close-knit” as a result and that at the end of the year, the group tends to “go bowling or eat at a professor’s house.”