Four graduate students in UMKC’s Interdisciplinary Ph.D. (I-Ph.D.) program have begun working toward their doctorate degree with a primary emphasis on bioinformatics through the School of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics.
The four started their coursework this semester, becoming the first students to pursue a Ph.D. through the School of Medicine.
The I-Ph.D. program allows students to work across disciplines to develop an individualized academic plan requiring a primary discipline and at least one co-discipline. In collaboration with the university’s School of Graduate Studies, the medical school has offered bioinformatics as a co-discipline since the fall semester of 2014. Bioinformatics has two co-discipline students who are on track to complete their degrees next May; one with a primary discipline in molecular biology and biochemistry, and the other with a primary discipline in engineering.
The School of Medicine also offers a master’s degree in bioinformatics and a graduate certificate in clinical research through the Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics.
“I feel like our co-discipline program has been successful because we have had students from so many different primary disciplines,” said Mary Gerkovich, Ph.D., associate professor and coordinator for the I-Ph.D. discipline.
Through the bioinformatics emphasis, the students primarily focus on biomedical data and knowledge, with an emphasis on how to use that information in problem solving and decision making to develop the technology and processes that will shape future health care.
Gerkovich said the program helps students think about biomedical research in the context of interacting with people.
“We’re very excited with our initial group,” Gerkovich said. “We think they’re really strong students and it’s perfect that they all have different co-disciplines because it points out the intersection between what we’re doing and so many different units within the university.”
The students with primary disciplines in bioinformatics are studying co-disciplines in mathematics and statistics, cellular biology and biophysics, entrepreneurship, and computer sciences.
“In our little cohort of four students, we have a diverse mix of what they’ll be doing and the kind of research they’ll be working on,” Gerkovich said.
Jeremy Provance is a software analyst in the School of Medicine’s Center for Health Insights. He completed his master’s degree in bioinformatics last May and decided to continue in the I-Ph.D. program. He will be working largely in cardiovascular outcomes research with the Mid America Heart Institute at Saint Luke’s Hospital.
Provance said a number of factors made the program appealing. The quality of faculty and the research at UMKC were the major factors, as well as the interdisciplinary aspect of the program.
“It ensures that I’m going to interact with related but separate disciplines to really dig deep and draw connections between bioinformatics and, in my case, entrepreneurship and innovation,” Provance said. “Being at the medical school means I have access to a lot of health science faculty in addition to everyone on the Volker campus. Biomedical and health informatics itself is largely interdisciplinary, so it’s a big plus to know faculty with a lot of varying expertise, even outside the department.”
David Walsh, another I-Ph.D. student, worked at the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Kansas State University for three years before moving to Kansas City about a year ago and discovering the program at UMKC. With a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, Walsh began learning more about the relationship between genomics and bioinformatics. Now, he hopes to incorporate his interest in computer programming with finding process improvements for tracking samples and controls, and checking results.
“Using the tools of informatics, it’s possible to develop the targeted treatments that we need, and I want to be involved in helping our species overcome disease,” said Walsh.
Gerkovich said the I-Ph.D. program benefits both the university and the community. While it helps provide graduate students to support faculty research endeavors throughout UMKC and the School of Medicine, it is also developing a community resource.
“Our department has really put an emphasis on trying to develop collaborations with area institutions,” Gerkovich said. “One of our goals is to do exactly that, develop collaborations with corporations such as Cerner and our affiliate hospitals so that we have students working with people in those organizations. We’re training students to have the skills to contribute to those types of environments.”