1:03 p.m., April 22, 2009----Cathy H. Wu delivered the inaugural lecture as the Edward G. Jefferson Chair of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Delaware's Roselle Center for the Arts on Tuesday, April 21. Wu has appointments in UD's Department of Computer and Information Sciences and its Department of Biological Sciences, as well as the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.
Wu's joint appointment in disciplines that might seem to have little connection reflects her expertise in bioinformatics, a fledgling field that uses computer science, mathematics, and information theory to model and analyze biological systems.
In introducing Wu, Tom Apple, dean of the UD College of Arts and Sciences, said, “Cathy was hired as the first Jefferson Chair after a lengthy national search for the right person to fill this unique position. She is a pioneer and a world leader in the field of bioinformatics.”
Wu opened her talk, “Integrative Bioinformatics: Linking Systems Biology, Environmental Sciences and Medicine,” by displaying a fairly lengthy definition of bioinformatics developed by the National Institutes of Health. She then shared her own definition: a cartoon of a computer and a mouse -- the mammal, that is, not the hardware accessory. “Bioinformatics is the emerging field where information and biology converge,” she said.
“The Human Genome Project has revolutionized how biologists practice,” she added. “Discovery science introduced the possibility of global analyses of DNA and genes, proteins, and biological systems.”
Wu said that in the 20th century, science was reductionist, focusing on individual components. This view can lead to a loss of information about time, space, and context. In contrast, 21st century science is integrative, focusing on interactions within dynamic systems.
In other words, connections are the new focal point, and the tools that Wu and her colleagues are developing and providing to the scientific community are elucidating those connections, enabling the pathways of disease to be identified.
Wu sees the integration of genetics and the environment as key to the practice of medicine in the future, with a focus on personalized medicine, where care is tailored to the individual based on his or her gene expression profile.
Before joining the UD faculty in March 2009, Wu was professor of oncology and of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Georgetown University Medical Center. While at Georgetown, she led the development of the Protein Information Resource (PIR), an integrated protein informatics resource for genomic, proteomic, and systems biology research.
Wu has maintained an adjunct faculty appointment at Georgetown and will continue to direct the PIR, which now has two branches: one at GU and a second here at UD.
The PIR comprises a number of components, including a comprehensive source of protein sequence and functional information, a classification system, a database that generates value-added reports, a text mining function, and a thesaurus of protein and gene names to facilitate consistency and eliminate ambiguity in naming.
“Tremendous amounts of data are being generated by biologists today,” Wu says, “and integration is essential if we are to understand how systems interact. Integrative bioinformatics enables integration of data and tools, common standards, and resources of scientific disciplines.”
Wu brought to UD not only her own expertise and energy, but also a number of team members to enable expansion of the PIR to Delaware. “We're expanding the enterprise greatly here,” Wu said, “involving people from many disciplines, including biology, medicine, computer science, mathematics, statistics, and engineering.”
She pointed to involvement by four colleges at UD -- Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Marine and Earth Studies -- with translational medicine and environmental sciences as the unifying themes through the Center for Translational Cancer Research and the Center for Critical Zone Research.
“This work provides a tremendous foundation for a lot of wonderful synergistic activities to occur,” Wu said, “and these themes are an integral part of UD's Path to ProminenceTM.”
To provide a focal point for the research, a Center for Bioinformatic and Computational Biology will be established at UD, and new academic programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels are in the planning stages.
Wu, who earned her Ph.D. at Purdue University, has served on several advisory boards, as well as numerous program committees for international bioinformatics and proteomics conferences and workshops. She has published more than 130 peer-reviewed papers and three books, and she has given more than 100 invited lectures.
The Edward G. Jefferson Chair honors the late Edward Jefferson, former chairman and chief executive officer of the DuPont Company and a University trustee and benefactor. The Jefferson Chair is funded through an endowment established by the Unidel Foundation.
Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson