Interdisciplinary Research Highlighted at Board Meeting

Institutes on computational biology, global women's issues and sustainability at forefront of university-wide initiatives.
Keith Crandall
Computational Biology Institute Director Keith Crandall presents at Friday's Board of Trustees meeting.
February 07, 2014

Cross-disciplinary initiatives at the George Washington University are helping improve the lives of women, the health of children and the environment we live in through innovative research and collaborative projects.

The university’s Global Women’s Institute, Computational Biology Institute and newly-announced Sustainability Institute were showcased at Friday's Board of Trustees meeting. The meeting opened with remarks by Chairman of the Board Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, who highlighted a dinner that board members shared with students Thursday.

“I’m hoping this is year one of a tradition for us to really engage with our students on campus,” he said.

Mr. Carbonell introduced GW President Steven Knapp, who discussed how the university is creating more opportunities for faculty and students to cross disciplines.

“Our strategic plan is very committed to exposing students to what it means to address the world’s most challenging problems, and that is why we’re focusing on what we are calling innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Dr. Knapp during his remarks. “This is already being implemented through our efforts to create interdisciplinary programs.”

Dr. Knapp announced that a Sustainability Institute will bring together sustainability efforts across the university under the leadership of Kathleen A. Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Sustainability is a complex and key interest to our students, faculty, trustees and the community at large,” Dr. Knapp said. “I’m confident [Dr. Merrigan] will be a great collaborative influence in pulling together the many parts of what has been a strategic focus and priority for university.”

Dr. Merrigan described her commitment to sustainable efforts and said she is excited to bring her expertise to GW.

“The George Washington University has such enthused faculty, students and staff bringing great energy and asking questions about how to really create the world we want and need to live in. I’m so glad to join a community of scholars who are going to lead the best minds to the greatest problems of our day, and we’re in the perfect place at GW to really be the global leader in sustainability,” she said.

Following Dr. Merrigan’s introduction, Global Women’s Institute (GWI) Director Mary Ellsberg and Computational Biology Institute Director Keith Crandall discussed the comprehensive projects that their respective institutes have undertaken during their short time at GW.

“The Global Women’s Institute was founded with a simple mission, which is to empower women and girls and to advance gender equality by leveraging the enormous resources and experiences of the university in research, education and civic engagement,” said Dr. Ellsberg.

Launched in fall 2012 as a university initiative and chartered in April 2013, GWI focuses on research to influence the development of policies, programs and interventions. GWI has a truly interdisciplinary approach, Dr. Ellsberg said, with faculty from across the university and projects that bring together policymakers and practitioners to find solutions for local, national and international issues.

GWI is working with global leaders from organizations such as UN Women, Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization to update the knowledge base on violence against women and girls.

“When I started out we had very little information about how common violence against women was. There were very few studies that were population based,” Dr. Ellsberg said. “Now we’re really looking for solutions.”

That is why the institute has partnered with the World Bank to conduct a systematic review of gender-based violence intervention research to find out which interventions work and how they can be improved. Preliminary findings from the study were presented during the Sexual Violence Research Initiative 2013 Forum in Bangkok, Thailand.

As the educational partner of the nonprofit Malala Fund, GWI is also in the process of developing curriculum tools to be used in colleges and high schools that will accompany “I Am Malala,” the memoir of the 16-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.

Off campus, Dr. Ellsberg participates in national policy discussions on issues affecting women, and GWI helps shape the international agenda on global gender issues. During a congressional briefing in November, Dr. Ellsberg discussed the state of domestic violence in Latin America, advocating for the passage of the International Violence against Women Act (I-VAWA). In December, GWI and the We Belong Together initiative released a policy brief that focused on how immigration reform could significantly reduce violence against women and girls in the U.S. and abroad.

The Computational Biology Institute brings together faculty from across the university as well as scholars from partner institutions to develop research in three main areas: biodiversity informatics, systems biology and translational medicine. To date, the institute has received more than $1.5 million in external research funding and has collaborated with partners such as the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoo and the National Institutes of Health, to name a few.

“In a nutshell, computational biology really is the ultimate interdisciplinary field of science— bringing together engineers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists and physicists, and tackling large volumes of data,” said Dr. Crandall, who began his position at GW in 2012.

One project Dr. Crandall pointed to is a collaboration between the Computational Biology Institute and the Children’s National Medical Center to better understand the causes of asthma in children. In the study, researchers took nasal swabs from 14 children—eight who had asthma and six who did not—and used the swabs to sequence DNA. From each patient, the researchers obtained 3.2 gigabytes of data, or more than 2 billion nucleotides of human and pathogen DNA, which “presents a computational problem,” Dr. Crandall said.

“We wanted to first sort the pathogens from the human DNA, and then within the pathogens, categorize them and find out what was causing the asthma.”

To do that, the researchers, along with colleagues from Children’s Medical Center, developed computer software to partition the data, compare the asthmatic children with the healthy children and determine the cause of the inflammatory disease. They found a particular bacterial species in six out of the eight children with asthma.

“We actually know how to effectively treat it, because we know which antibiotics to throw at this,” Dr. Crandall said.

The Computational Biology Institute, housed on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, has four full-time research faculty members and will add two more next year. The institute recently developed Colonial One, a high-performance computing facility built through a collaboration between the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the Division of Information Technology.

Looking ahead, Dr. Crandall said his goals include hiring additional faculty, continuing to develop partnerships, identifying new grant opportunities and building a wet laboratory space on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.