Keith Crandall to Lead Computational Biology Institute

June 25, 2012

Research will focus on analyzing data in genetics and genomics fields.

George Washington University has hired Keith Crandall, a widely respected researcher and chair of the biology department at Brigham Young University, as director of its planned Computational Biology Institute.

The Computational Biology Institute, which is still in the developmental stages, will eventually be located on the university’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus. Dr. Crandall will begin his position at GW on July 1.

Computational biology is a field that brings together elements of computer science and biology. Computational biologists develop tools to effectively analyze the huge volumes of data generated in researching genetics and genomics—including genetic mapping and DNA sequencing.

“My work is centered on computational biology and evolutionary biology informatics,” Dr. Crandall explained. “We develop software and methodology and apply them in different areas, including crustacean biology and biodiversity. I also do a lot of work on infectious diseases and HIV.”

Dr. Crandall earned a Ph.D. in population and evolutionary biology and a master’s degree in statistics, both from Washington University in St. Louis. He completed postdoctoral work at the University of Texas on an Alfred P. Sloan and National Science Foundation fellowship.

Leo Chalupa, GW’s vice president for research, said he expects Dr. Crandall will help usher in a truly interdisciplinary initiative for the university that will positively affect virtually all of GW’s schools and colleges.

“I believe Dr. Crandall’s recruitment as the founding director of the Computational Biology Institute will be the driving force toward more cross-campus research in many fields, including computer science, evolutionary biology and personalized medicine,” Dr. Chalupa said.

Personalized medicine is a health care model that allows practitioners to tailor medical decisions to the individual patient, using genetic or other information. 

Dr. Crandall said he envisions the Computational Biology Institute’s scope as being broader than his own research agenda. He has suggested that the university target three main areas as it develops the institute’s agenda: biodiversity informatics, systems biology and translational medicine.

“These are three areas I see as real strengths of this institution that I can come in and capitalize on. With a few key hires, we can bring people together and make some fast, significant headway,” he said.

Dr. Crandall will bring significant grant funding with him to GW. One grant, from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, is part of a large, multi-institutional $6 million award to investigate the impact of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Crandall’s portion of the grant will use gene expression analysis to identify how oil pollutants affect deep sea crustaceans.

Another award Dr. Crandall will bring, from the National Science Foundation, funds work on its “Open Tree of Life” project, which brings together researchers from 10 institutions to draft, for the first time, an online, comprehensive tree of all 1.8 million named species of fungus, plants and animals.

“It’s a big project,” Dr. Crandall said. “We’re not going to get a perfect refined tree, but we want to represent how we understand biodiversity at the moment, and provide a framework for adding new data.”

Once the tree is created, the researchers expect it will be self-perpetuating—as scientists publish papers with new findings about plants, animals and biodiversity, they can input their results into the tree, creating a continually updated, non-static tool that will be accessible to both researchers and the general public.

In 2010, Dr. Crandall was designated a “highly cited” researcher by the ISI Web of Knowledge database. The distinction means that he is one of the 250 most-cited researchers in the “ecology/environment” category. Less than one-half of one percent of published scholars are given the “highly cited” rating.

“I feel it is a great honor to join the George Washington University faculty and direct the new Computational Biology Institute,” Dr. Crandall said. “We have an amazing opportunity in this new genomics era to be world leaders in developing and implementing computational approaches to broad questions from biodiversity crisis issues to translational medicine. With the exceptional faculty and outstanding leadership at GW, the institute is sure to be a huge success. I can't wait to get started.”

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