The Case for Bioinformatics
With the evolution of DNA studies, collecting the biological data our genetic material contains and analyzing it in a short period of time has become a science of its own. Bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field that combines biology with statistics and information technology, does just that, and LAU prides itself on offering the first and only BS in Bioinformatics program in Lebanon.
Recognizing the critical importance of this science and its impact on the healthcare industry – from designing new drugs to detecting predisposition to diseases – the Department of Computer Science and Mathematics launched the program in 2014. Within a year, 30 students had enrolled, drawn by the specificity and value of the discipline.
The importance of DNA analysis, says Assistant Professor of Bioinformatics Georges Khazen, is that it allows scientists to discover “genetic mutations and check whether we are predisposed to a certain disease or not, and thus take any necessary precautions or lifestyle changes to prevent, delay or treat the disease.”
Taking it one step further, it has now become possible to “personalize treatment” depending on a person’s DNA. “Doctors can customize the treatment of a patient depending on specific markers they have, thus improving and speeding up the healing process,” Khazen added.
The three-year program is multidisciplinary and versatile, with unique features that allow students to go into genomics, proteomics, computation, molecular biology and even the medical field. Students can minor in chemistry, biology, computer science, mathematics or even business.
Graduates of the program are already reaping benefits. Joseph Saad – who was among its first cohort – went on to complete an MSc in Bioinformatics at Turku University in Finland and was subsequently hired by a bioinformatics company there. He is now working on personalized medicine research and is pursuing his PhD at Turku University. Another graduate, Christian Atallah, who completed an MSc in the discipline at Newcastle University, will be staying on there for his PhD.
“The major is capable of sending you in any direction you want because of its diversity, and students can take courses depending on what they want to specialize in,” said current student Maria Nakhoul, who will be starting her master’s in biomedical informatics at Harvard University following her graduation from LAU this spring.
“When I was applying to Harvard and saw that I had actually fulfilled their prerequisites with my BS at LAU, I became more confident about applying because I felt I could actually make it,” she said, praising the program’s wealth of courses that are required for a master’s abroad.
For Nakhoul, it all started with her interest in genetics. “I was at a university fair, and I had already decided that I wanted to go to LAU. I went to ask about a major that would help me continue in genetics later on, and I learned about bioinformatics and that it had opened newly at the university,” she said.
Because many students join the university without having a clear mindset of what they want to do, said Khazen, a program like bioinformatics “provides them with enough exposure to different disciplines, while preparing them for one of the most currently demanded career fields.”
And as it is also a pre-med program, students have the opportunity to sit for the MCAT during the summer of their second year.
Employment opportunities are ample. Fresh graduates can find jobs in “pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, major hospitals with sequencing departments, consulting companies, development companies with application to healthcare,” Khazen said.
Nevertheless, he advises students to pursue “a specialized graduate degree before joining the market” due to the diversity of the bioinformatics field.
Khazen is also keen to encourage students to apply for internships during the course of the program. He is able to secure two to three internships each summer with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, and Paris-Saclay in France.