Bioinformatics bridges computer and life sciences

Dr. Erich Baker, professor of bioinformatics in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, leads Baylor’s bioinformatics program. Baylee VerSteeg | Multimedia Journalist

By Samantha Amaro | Reporter

Part of being a college student means reading long textbooks and researching complicated topics. Bioinformatics, a major created at Baylor 20 years ago in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, uses technology to analyze even larger amounts of data like human genetic codes.

This field is a combination of chemistry, biochemistry, biology, statistics and mathematics. Bioinformatics professionals also create new methods and software tools for understanding biological data.

Dr. Erich Baker, professor of bioinformatics in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, leads Baylor’s program. While his first job after earning his undergraduate degree was in programming, he was also interested in medicine. After realizing he did not enjoy working with sick people, he ultimately pursued biological research.

“Bioinformatics wasn’t a thing when I was in school,” Baker said.

Two of his ongoing projects are funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Baker said he finds alcoholism research intriguing because there is no singular gene that causes alcoholism.

“It’s an interesting area,” Baker said. “I’m drawn to it because it’s a very, very difficult problem, not because it’s an easy problem.”

Two of his other projects study functional genomics, which investigate which pieces of the genome make people who they are. GeneWeaver, a project conducted by Baker and two colleagues from Maine and Tennessee, has been ongoing for the past seven to eight years. It establishes an online toolkit for people to upload and analyze sets of genes, like those related to diseases or biological processes, to find the common genetic components across species.

Baylor’s bioinformatics program was first planned to give students knowledge in various areas: informatics, computational science, life science, gene and genome product sequencing and structure analysis.

Informatics includes topics like database design and web interfaces, while computational sciences focus on algorithms and modeling. Bioinformatics incorporates life sciences such as genetics and immunology.

Bangladeshi doctoral candidate S. M. Ashiqul Islam is working on a research project that uses artificial intelligence algorithms, or machine learning, to classify proteins and find the structure and the characteristics of proteins. He wrote several algorithms as part of the research to make the predictions about the proteins because they are difficult to predict and classify.

“I’m basically interested on getting patterns,” Islam said. “So discovering patterns from data … I actually find that as a game.”

Islam said he wants to apply the bioinformatics work with biological data, as he is, above all a biologist. He said he wants to use machine learning to predict cancer with his research by finding the patterns of the genome that causes cancer or autoimmune diseases.

“Artificial intelligence is kind of like the new electricity in the industry,” Islam said. “Nothing will be completely done [in the future] without artificial intelligence.”