The National Science Foundation has awarded the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and the School of Integrative Biology a $3.2 million training grant. NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) is a highly regarded grant program that was founded in 1998 and has, thus far, provided interdisciplinary research training to approximately 5,000 graduate students.
The University of Illinois grant, Vertically Integrated Training With Genomics (VInTG), will provide support for as many as 30 graduate students over the next five years. Students will learn ways to both ask and answer the big research questions of the coming decades, says principal investigator Andrew Suarez, associate professor of Animal Biology and Entomology and IGB affiliate.
VInTG will address two "grand challenges" in biology: How do genomes interact with the environment to produce biological diversity? and How are biological systems integrated from molecules to ecosystems? Answering these questions will help both science and society determine how to maintain food security under climate change; how to integrate genetics and ecology to study emerging infectious diseases; and how organisms' responses to climate change influence biodiversity and ecosystem function.
"We think this vertically integrated approach will shed light on these kinds of grand challenges," says Suarez.
VInTG will focus on what Suarez calls "back to the future" approaches. Over the past several decades graduate training and scientific research generally has become highly specialized. This approach resulted in major advances, particularly in the genomic and bioinformatics fields. As a result, with hundreds or even thousands of animal and plant genome sequences becoming available, nearly all levels of biological inquiry are becoming "genome-powered." Consequently, Suarez and his co-PIs, Gene Robinson (Department of Entomology), Carla Cáceres (Department of Animal Biology and Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology), Sandra Rodriguez-Zas (Department of Animal Sciences), and Owen McMillan (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), believe the time is ripe to integrate these fields with a more traditional, taxonomic approach.
Through the grant, graduate students will study an organism or group of organisms from its genome to its evolution, ecology and behavior. This means that graduate students interested in biological fieldwork on a given organism will also learn about genomic tools that are available, and those interested in benchwork and bioinformatics will conduct biological fieldwork in order to put that research in a broader, species-specific context.
With this approach students will have a comprehensive knowledge of their organisms, says Suarez.
"We don't want to train students to generate huge amounts of data without knowing what questions they are really asking," says Suarez. "We want to train field biologists who know how to collect data with the genomic resources available in their mind and to train bench scientists and bio-informaticians to know about their organism."
In addition to being interdisciplinary, the program will have students working in research teams, rather than individual students interacting with individual advisers. Students are eligible to apply for two years of funding and will take specific classes that emphasize vertical integration.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), one of the world's premier tropical research institutes, is a partner in the grant and will host students at their research facility in Panama. Students will have access to STRI's large, diverse and long-term study sites and databanks for a wide variety of organisms and ecosystems in Panama.
This is the third IGERT the University of Illinois has received in the past three years, and the first going to a biology program.