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More than academic -- Universities want N.Y. to take lead in computational biology
July 2007
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author


LONG ISLAND, N.Y.A group of major universities recently announced that they plan to take a coordinated approach in the development and application of computational sciences and intend to focus their efforts on the rapidly emerging field of computational biology.
It all started when the New York legislature gave the green light on funding new supercomputer purchases at universities, with the state assemblyauthorizing a 100 terawatt computer for the Brookhaven Laboratory Affairs facility at Stony Brook University and the senate authorizing a similar machine at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Then the seed started germinating that this could be a chance to move the State of New York into a leading position in the area of computational biology.
"What it came down to was that we realized that suddenly, New York had two of the biggest computers on the face of the earth," says Dr. Robert McGrath, vice president for Brookhaven Laboratory Affairs at Stony Brook University. "And then we have the assets of very strong universities that excel in computational science and have a long history of high-bandwidth interconnectedness amongst all the major educational and research institutions. So we had lots of resources and realized that if we got together and cooperated with each other, we could bring to bear the ability to solve a lot of problems in pharmaceuticals and other industries that increasingly rely on computational models to keep costs down and efficiencies up."
The proposed consortium currently consists of Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia University, New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University at Albany, University at Buffalo, and Cornell University.
McGrath notes that the academic institutions are actively seeking industry guidance and support for the consortium and says that if there isn't a balance between academic and corporate interests, the plan just won't work. The academicians have the hard-core know-how, he says, while the corporations often have the knowledge of what specific applications are needed by the marketplace. In addition to bringing universities and corporations together to bridge that gap, McGrath sees potential in companies also coming to the consortium simply to access their computing power for specific projects.
"The use of computation in drug design will advance our understanding of important biological processes and dramatically accelerate discovery, and ultimately development, of new therapies. This has tremendous implications for both academic and industrial research programs," says Dr. Samuel Aronson, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Plans to form the consortium started percolating early this year, and since that time, McGrath and others have already spoken to several members of the state assembly and state senate and found strong support there.
"The biotechnology industry is constantly seeking faster, more efficient means of developing vital therapies, a goal that computational biology promises to accelerate," says Nathan Tinker, executive director of the New York Biotechnology Association, which has thrown its support behind the proposed consortium.
In addition to contacts made in the legislature, McGrath has met with Patrick Foy, director of the Empire State Development Corporation and with New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's designated head of the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, Edward Reinfurt.
If and when all these forces will come together to make funding available for the proposed consortium remains to be seen, but McGrath believes things are off to a strong start. "The ultimate potential to enhance human health and capture the economic benefit of these activities in New York State is enormous," he says.
Code: E070707



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