Letter: Chancellor Subbaswamy, give UMass a program in genomics

UMass could be at the forefront of a growing field


(Joe Frank/ Daily Collegian)

By Letter Contributer

Dear Chancellor Subbaswamy,

It’s been a great four years here at the University of Massachusetts. Compared to when I first entered the University, our school’s reputation as an academic institution has skyrocketed, thanks in no small part to your leadership. You sought to make UMass realize its full potential, shedding its old reputation and seeking the new vision of Amherst becoming “Cambridge West.” As part of this vision, we must also consider one of UMass’ most overlooked fields, one that I believe will be an integral part of the University’s future.

The study of genomics combines aspects from both the life sciences and computer science. A truly interdisciplinary field, it involves molecular biology, computer programming, data science and mathematical modeling. More importantly, it is a field that is about to become more relevant as the cost of sequencing a genome drops. UMass is ideally poised to become a leader in this field. We have a top computer science department, programs in data science and statistics, and access to the Massachusetts Green High Powered Computer Cluster in Holyoke. We also come from a state that is arguably the biotech hub of the world, and have sizeable departments in the life sciences. If Cambridge East is the Mecca of genomics, then Cambridge West should also invest in genomic education. It may be our future legacy.

There are questions of scale and feasibility: while we may not yet have the resources for a full-on genomics department, I believe we still have plenty to work with. Numerous professors from biology, biochemistry, math, computer science and more have expressed interest in teaching courses for an interdisciplinary certification program. According to Dr. Kimberly Tremblay from the veterinary and animal sciences department, “Within my field of NIH-funded research, there is a dearth of appropriately-trained bioinformatics individuals.” Dr. Jeffrey Blanchard from the biology department teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in bioinformatic analysis of genomic data and has previously taught an interdisciplinary course with the statistics and computer science departments. Dr. Ramesh Sitaraman from the computer science department has also voiced support for the creation of such a program, with the perspective as an algorithm researcher.

There is no shortage of talent at this University. Even if there is no dedicated department yet, professors from different departments are willing to make an interdisciplinary training program in genomics. UMass students and researchers need to be equipped with the right tools so they can be on the cutting edge of genetic research, especially as technologies like CRISPR and commercial genome sequencing become commonplace. We can make meaningful changes using the talent and resources that we already have.

The genomics industry is projected to be worth nearly $28 billion in the next six years, and research labs are increasingly looking for candidates with expertise in coding and data science. A program in genomics would equip UMass graduates with the tools they need to succeed at 21st Century science. If we get in on this rush, we could create the image of UMass as a leader of this growing field. If this program is successful in the long run, UMass can gain a reputation for being one of the nation’s leaders in genomics and bioinformatics. Relatively speaking, the field is extremely young. An institution that invests heavily in next-generation genetic technology has the opportunity to cement itself as one of the nation’s leaders when the field is more mature. This is the future legacy of UMass and Cambridge West.

We have the resources. We have the geography. We have the talent. What we need is the official support. Chancellor Subbaswamy, I urge you to please consider how the creation of a program in genomics can help you to fulfill your vision. UMass has the rare opportunity to place itself at the forefront of a burgeoning field, and we have a combination of factors that poise us for success. Your endorsement is the last missing piece.

Edridge D’Souza

President of the UMass Genetics Club and a 2019 Churchill Scholar in genetics