Bringing It All Together
The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

As global issues become increasingly complex and urgent, many research enterprises are recognizing that scholars can benefit from collaborating with people outside of their field. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences argues that the scientific enterprise must move beyond inflexible disciplinary and mission boundaries towards a holistic, "transdisciplinary" approach that integrates natural, social, and health sciences in a humanities context. [1]

Princess Imoukhuede, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and one of the many IGB faculty and affiliates who represent multiple disciplines from over 30 departments across campus

The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences has gone a step farther with its notion of a "convergence" approach [2] that integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from multiple disciplines, including economic, social, and behavioral sciences. In the process, a web of partnerships is formed to support scientific investigations and translate research advances into innovative solutions, strategies, and products.

The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and Convergence

The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is home to a genomics research community positioned "where science meets society." Its mission is to advance life sciences research and stimulate bioeconomic development in Illinois through pioneering, transformative research.

It is also an excellent example of a convergence ecosystem, integrating different sub-disciplines of biology with technologies, information, and approaches from engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and the geological, atmospheric, and social sciences. It unites research and learning opportunities while attracting major research funding and high-caliber scientists and students.

The IGB uses many of the strategies and practices that the NRC has identified as essential for facilitating convergence:

Organizing around a common theme, problem, or scientific challenge;
The IGB has three program areas: systems biology, cellular and metabolic engineering, and genome technology. Research is organized around themes linked to grand challenges in biology, medicine, agriculture, and the environment, addressing problems such as treating chronic and infectious human diseases, managing pests and pathogens, maintaining an abundant and healthy food supply, and developing sources of ecologically friendly energy. Other projects focus on fundamental scientific questions such as the origin of life and how the brain functions.

The IGB uses a rigorous, faculty-driven "white paper" process to select themes. Each white paper identifies a theme leader, an established expert with experience in leading interdisciplinary research projects and an understanding of technology transfer and commercialization. The white paper also identifies theme faculty, drawn from multiple departments and colleges, with expertise that is critical to addressing the main questions of the theme. The IGB Director enlists advice from an external ad hoc advisory committee comprising distinguished scientists from academia and private industry that reviews the white paper. For a theme to be chosen, the committee must deem it to be outstanding scientifically, appropriate to the IGB mission, and with clear potential to grow into more than the sum of its parts. Periodic expert review of theme activities allows the IGB to respond to new scientific opportunities, ensuring that it remains a world-class facility for interdisciplinary research in the life sciences.

Implementing management structures tailored to the challenges to convergence;
The IGB is a "second home" to more than 130 researchers, providing research and administrative support within an infrastructure designed from the ground up to support team science.

Providing opportunities to interact formally and informally;
To foster formal interactions, the IGB has open labs that accommodate research, interaction, and computation; a 48-seat computer lab with individual desktop computers; and a conference center that seats up to 100. The in-house café and large tables in the public areas are used for informal meetings, discussions, and study sessions. The office of the late Carl Woese is being transformed into a reading room. An in-house guest suite facilitates contacts between IGB guests and its researchers.

Working with and across existing departments;
IGB research projects bring together experts from approximately 30 departments and nine campus units. Moreover, many of these researchers have allegiance to multiple units, departments, and institutes.

Designing facilities and workspaces for convergent research;
Individual researchers do not have their own labs. Their groups are housed in Thematic Lab Modules that include facilities for biology, bioengineering or chemistry, and bioinformatics, facilitating collaboration. The fully equipped Core Facilities contain state-of-the-art equipment for microscopy, imaging, and bioanalysis. An extensive in-house IT infrastructure maintains the biocomputing hub for the whole campus.

Designing education and training programs that foster convergence;
The IGB supports the university's mission to educate the next generation of scientists by providing unique in-lab experiences for over 350 graduate students and 240 undergraduates. Individualized Postdoctoral Research Development Plans blend resources available in the Postdoctoral Affairs Office of the Graduate College with IGB-specific programs to provide comprehensive training.

As part of its community engagement, the IGB leads "Genomics forTM" workshops aimed at various professional groups (e.g., judges, prosecutors, science teachers). Participants are introduced to the basics (including DNA structure and function, environmental influences on gene function, and genome sequence analysis) while exploring how genomics affects issues related to their own profession.

Other outreach activities include "Pollen Power," a summer science camp for middle school girls. At the other end of the age spectrum, a partnership with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology offers community members aged 50 or older the opportunity to work on research projects as Citizen Scientists.

Establishing partnership arrangements across institutions;
More than 50 genomic biologists, bioinformaticians, computer scientists, and engineers collaborate under the campus-wide Computing for Genomics Initiative (CompGen) to make genome sequence analysis more powerful, accurate, and efficient. CompGen, a partnership with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the Coordinated Science Lab, has spawned several externally funded projects. These include an NIH Big Data Center of Excellence; an NSF Major Research Instrumentation grant; and an NSF planning grant for an Industry/University Collaborative Research Center with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Chicago that will bring together industry participants from the computing, biotechnology, pharma, and agrobiotech sectors to create new research, entrepreneurship, and educational opportunities.

The HPCBio (High-Performance Biological Computing) program works with scientists from the IGB, campus departments, and outside the university to produce high-throughput sequencing data. It has played a crucial role in attracting new research funding to campus, supporting and training researchers at all levels, developing relationships with industry, and catalyzing new projects. HPCBio expertise is crucial to the success of CompGen as well as the Blue Waters and the NCSA Private Sector Program biomedical projects.

Exploring sources of funding within and beyond government agencies;
The IGB is developing strategic partnerships with other institutes and laboratories to expand its research funding base. To increase philanthropic support, it is taking a multi-pronged approach that taps corporations and foundations. The development director uses outreach activities and takes advantage of new initiatives to pursue other funding opportunities.

From Research to Solutions

In addition to supporting collaboration and discovery, a convergence institution has to offer technology transfer activities to translate research advances into new products. With the university Office of Technology Management, the IGB's IP Engagement Project informs faculty, staff, and student about available commercialization support. The IGB also offers a Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Management program to help graduate students and postdocs to understand the business, economic, and legal issues in scientific and high-tech start-up ventures. Proof-of-concept funding is available to IGB researchers to fill the funding gap between basic laboratory research and the resulting commercial products. 

The Future

IGB researchers obtain large multi-PI grants, publish in the world's leading scientific journals, garner prestigious awards, and have acquired multiple patents. This is clear evidence that bringing together researchers with common interests and diverse skills and background to work on projects that cross disciplinary borders can produce exciting results.

The NRC documents the importance of convergence as a mechanism for generating new knowledge, training new students, and contributing to the future of the nation’s economy. It recommends systematic efforts at the national level to raise awareness the role of convergence in the sciences and technologies of the future, and to overcome remaining challenges to creating environments that foster it. As a leader in convergence research, the IGB looks forward to playing a key role in these efforts.

[1] American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2013. ARISE 2: Unleashing America’s Research &Innovation Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences [online]. Available:

[2] National Research Council. 2014. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Written By: 
Susan Jongeneel. Photos by Kathryn Coulter.
Date Published: 
Fri, 05/01/2015 - 9:00am