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Computational biology department joins School of Computer Science

Credit: Frances Soong/Art Staff Credit: Frances Soong/Art Staff Pictured above is the Gates/Hillman Complex on Forbes Avenue. It joins two physical parts of campus as well as the computational biology department and the School of Computer Science. (credit: Kristen Severson/Photo Editor) Pictured above is the Gates/Hillman Complex on Forbes Avenue. It joins two physical parts of campus as well as the computational biology department and the School of Computer Science. (credit: Kristen Severson/Photo Editor)

Carnegie Mellon has recently welcomed computational biology as an official department in the School of Computer Science.

Along with this new expansion and future possibility comes a unique prestige, as the Lane Center for Computational Biology is “the first computational biology department in the country to be part of a computer science school.”

“Carnegie Mellon has strong traditions of interdisciplinary research and of pioneering new fields, such as computational biology, [which] occur at the intersections of those disciplines,” said Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science, in an interview for the School of Computer Science website.

Daryl Yeo, a sophomore computer science major, also spoke highly of the addition to the university, and said he could not deny the proposed success. “It is a new and emerging field ... and combines two groundbreaking fields together for the betterment of mankind. Biology will go far with the marriage of a renowned CS school.” He also went on to say that by having a research center for computational biology readily available, prospective students will definitely be attracted to Carnegie Mellon, and it could not have come at a better time.

One practice that the Lane Center employs is active learning. This process, in basic terminology as explained in a separate interview by Robert Murphy, director of the Lane Center, involves “using computational models [to] determine which experiments are best.” This will reduce the amount and frequency of physical experimentation as countless trials can be tested virtually.

Murphy also brought up the Expeditions Grant, whose computational biology focus is model checking. This is, as Murphy describes, a “complimentary method to active learning” that “potentially allows us to decide whether or not a model is internally consistent.” So, as evident from both active learning and model checking, computational biology can definitely help us out as humans.

When discussing specific uses, Yeo brought up genomics and mentioned that “the mapping of the human genome” might be one of the many expected applications of computational biology.

As those in the world of technology know, trying to successfully map human beings’ DNA has been an ongoing quest for quite some time.

“Our DNA contains a large amount of information that needs to be processed,” Yeo says, “and computers and certain algorithms can aid in that.”

Murphy hints that not all professionals in this specific field need to be experts with computers, as there are many different talents that people can contribute to the whole. “In some cases, the hard part is figuring out how to do efficient computation ... but in other cases, the hard part is thinking about what it is or how it is you should do the calculation ... and it may not be all that complex.”

However, there is a time when computer specialists are just the ones needed for the job: “Because, typically, computation biologists are dealing with either large data sets or systems of large numbers ... often computing becomes a limiting factor.”