The Geisel School of Medicine has announced the addition of two new basic science departments, biomedical data science and epidemiology, which were approved by Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees in late 2014.
The new departments will bring together faculty members who currently work in other clinical and basic science departments at Geisel and support interdisciplinary research and education programs across Dartmouth.
“Establishing the epidemiology and biomedical data science departments is an important step for Geisel,” says Duane Compton, interim dean of Geisel. “There is an increasing need to understand genetic and environmental contributions to health and disease and to rationally evaluate very large genetic datasets. These new departments position us to address these issues going forward.”
Biomedical Data Science
The Department of Biomedical Data Science brings together the breadth and depth of faculty expertise in computational and statistical methodologies. Its mission is to advance research and education for the quantitative analysis of biomedical and health data and to unite and promote biomedical informatics and biostatistics as essential disciplines for the mentoring and academic development of faculty, as well as the training and education of the next generation of data scientists.
The department, chaired by Professor Chris Amos, is organized into two divisions: Biostatistics, led by Professor Tor Tosteson; and biomedical informatics, led by Associate Professor Amar Das.
“In recent years we’ve seen a massive influx of ‘big data’ generated from many sources, including electronic medical records, imaging data, social media, and networked research resources,” says Amos. “This presents tremendous opportunities and challenges, requiring us to develop new ways for getting, storing and sorting massive amounts of data. Increasingly, this data is being used for discovery. The question is: Can we use the data to produce reliable predictive models?”
Biostatistics is the study of quantitative methods for the design and evaluation of biomedical studies based on statistical and mathematical concepts. For example, modern clinical trial designs require sophisticated methods for randomly allocating patients to treatments based on personal characteristics with appropriate analytic techniques to address research hypotheses, and novel statistical methods are increasingly needed to analyze very large databases in genetics, comparative effectiveness research, and imaging science.
Biomedical informatics is a broad interdisciplinary field that draws upon computer science, computer engineering, information science, and cognitive psychology. Researchers in biomedical informatics develop software and technologies for generating, managing, and interpreting biomedical data and knowledge. For example, biomedical informatics methods are used to merge ‘big data’ on health and biomedical information from multiple sources, and to support discovery of the complex relationships between biomarkers and disease outcomes.
The department supports training and educational programs at the graduate and post-doctoral level and coordinates with undergraduate programs. Amos hopes to expand training opportunities in the future by adding targeted master’s degree training. “There is a need for data scientists who are trained to use and deploy these methods,” he says. “Advanced training in biomedical data science will propel the new era of discovery in this rapidly developing area.”
Epidemiology seeks to understand the drivers of disease occurrence and mortality in human populations. The establishment of the new department recognizes Dartmouth’s long-standing tradition and impact in this field, along with a talented faculty working at the cutting-edge of epidemiologic investigation. It also reflects a national trend to strengthen translational research—bringing new discoveries from the laboratory, to the bedside and population, and back again—for which epidemiologic methods play a critical role.
“By having a more visible academic presence, our new department will enhance research, training and mentoring initiatives at Dartmouth,” says Margaret Karagas, chair of the Department of Epidemiology. “It will make our core services and interdisciplinary and translational research expertise more accessible to colleagues at Dartmouth and beyond. Bringing our faculty together in a single department will enable us to both broaden and deepen educational opportunities in epidemiology.”
With expertise in diverse areas such as molecular-genetic epidemiology, nutrition and chemoprevention, epigenetics, children’s health, cancer, environmental health, pharmacoepidemiology, global studies, and much more, epidemiologists at Dartmouth have worked with partners in many disciplines across the campus to speed the pace of biomedical discovery and reduce the burden of human disease. Epidemiology faculty members have leadership roles in programs in the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, SYNERGY, the Toxic Metal Research Program, and affiliations with others like The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.
“As the only Department of Epidemiology in Northern New England,” says Karagas, “we hope to serve as a vibrant regional resource for epidemiology and advance education and research in biomedical science throughout the region.”
The department provides training to Geisel’s medical students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in several programs across campus, as well as undergraduate students at Dartmouth. A PhD in quantitative biomedical science with a focus in epidemiology will continue to be offered along with plans to expand the number of PhD students in epidemiology laboratories.