Faculty talk new Geisel programs

by Annie Ma | 11/11/14 8:22pm

Two Geisel Medical School departments in biomedical data science and epidemiology and a new master’s program in quantitative data sciences will come to Dartmouth following the Board of Trustees meeting last weekend.

The biomedical data science department will be the first with this name and structure in the country, said genetics professor Christopher Amos, who will head the department.

The department will bring together working groups that are researching biostatistics and biomedical informatics, which examine health and behavior through computational techniques, in other departments.

It will also expand the institution’s offerings in quantitative sciences, Amos said. The program aims to offer a master’s degree in biomedical data sciences in the near future. Though he said he hopes that the program will launch in spring 2015, he said that student demand will determine the decision, and the program may be delayed for at least a year.

Family and community medicine professor Margaret Karagas, who will lead the epidemiology department, said that its creation follows national research trends that emphasize understanding how medical findings affect people and society.

“For us, there’s been this enormous change in growth in epidemiology over the years,” Karagas said. “Research is becoming more translational, translating the basic findings from cell cultures or animal tests, but there’s a need to understand its effects in people.”

As the volume of research in both fields continues to grow, the need for new departments have become more prominent. Biostatistics and epidemiology are currently combined as a section under the family and community medicine department, but under the new plan, the separate departments would allow for more focused quantitative biomedical research and observational epidemiology research.

Geisel epidemiologists have succeeded in bringing outside funding and grants to their research, community and family medicine professor Linda Titus wrote in an email. She said that unlike other departments which the medical school, in part, supports, epidemiology salaries have been almost entirely supported by outside awards.

“We were unpaid or underpaid for grant development and for teaching medical students,” Titus wrote. “It’s safe to say I’m not alone in hoping the formation of the new department will allow our faculty to benefit from a higher level of salary support.”

Amos anticipates the new departments will minimally affect the medical school’s overall structure. While faculty members will still maintain connections to the former umbrella department of family and community medicine, faculty focusing on quantitative sciences and epidemiology will transition into working and teaching in the new departments.

The biomedical data science department will be housed in the Lebanon Williamson Translational Research Center. Amos said that the proximity to other departments like pathology will increase exposure and collaboration with clinical and practical medicine and research.

The Board of Trustees approved a new Master of Science degree in quantitative biomedical sciences. The cross-department program intends to focus on informatics and computational methods in biomedical fields. The program will be open to interested Dartmouth Ph.D. candidates. In addition to pursuing their major course of study, they could obtain a master’s in quantitative biomedical sciences, Karagas said. Students will not pay more tuition, as funding will come from their primary sponsoring departments or from external grants, Amos said.

Kevin Johnson, a Ph.D. student in studying experimental and molecular medicine, said he is one of around 10 students who have expressed interest in pursuing the new master’s degree. Johnson said student interest will grow once the program is more established.

“It’s a hot field, bioinformatics and biomedical data sciences.” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of jobs and opportunities. The master’s would allow Ph.D. candidates at Dartmouth to grow as students, broaden their skills, and to make themselves much more marketable post-graduation.”