Over the past four months, the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our day-to-day “normal.” As health care facilities scrambled to stockpile personal protective equipment, or PPEs, scientists raced to decode the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Meanwhile, tech and fitness tracker companies sparked global conversations on contact tracing, and across the United States, physicians pivoted from in-office to online care.
These – and countless other – responses to the pandemic were made possible thanks to the convergence of big data and biology.
For several years, the biotech and health care industries at large have reflected this trend. Pharmaceutical companies, biotech innovators, medical device developers, and health care facilities have increasingly recruited college graduates with expertise in both the life sciences and computer programming.
Launching a new degree that fuses foundations in biology and data science
Recognizing this, the University of Maryland’s (UMD) A. James Clark School of Engineering launched a new bachelor’s degree program in biocomputational engineering (BCE) that merges engineering and life sciences with computational methods and data science. The objective of the BCE program is to provide students with knowledge of the fundamentals in biology and quantitative problem solving, as well as skills in computation and data science.
Naresh Menon, founder of biomedical solutions company Chromologic, LLC, and a member of the Clark School’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering advisory board, described the program as a “must” for the future of bioscience and bioengineering. Chromologic has developed products that range from bioinspired solutions for counterfeit mitigation, to at-home HIV viral load analysis kits, to an ophthalmic system to assess physiological stress, and a unique digital telehealth platform.
“Biocomputational engineers are urgently needed where health care is headed,” he said. “Approximately 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product is spent on health care. Quantitative approaches are desperately needed to improve efficacy and lower cost – from research and development, to administering and compliance.”
Increasing demand for global health jobs
In fact, biocomputational engineers are in high demand in government (in particular, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) as well as with providers (hospitals), payers (insurance companies), and in industry (pharmaceutical and device manufacturers, especially), Menon noted.
As further evidenced by the pandemic, there is growing demand for electronic medical records (EMR) systems, and biocomputational engineers could play a key role in the rollout of these and other health IT initiatives, he said.
When asked to identify where BCE graduates could expect to find jobs, Menon outlined key areas across government, health care, and industry:
BCE graduates could play a major role in supporting robust compliance for device design and medical trial regulations, such as those put forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the health care and industry sectors, BCE graduates could apply machine learning-based approaches for drug design and diagnostic marker discovery.
By applying a data-centric approach to health care, BCE graduates could help shape the future of telemedicine.
With expertise in both biology and big data analytics, BCE graduates could advance understanding of how and why diseases spread, and how this spread can be controlled.
Prior to the BCE program launch, the Clark School’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering surveyed members of the department’s advisory board on the prospect of launching a biocomputational engineering program. On a scale of 1-5, with a “5” considered to be of highest demand, the advisory board rated job market demand for BCE graduates at 4.67, noting that biopharmaceutical and biomedical instrumentation industries in particular – as well as hospitals and insurance companies – would heavily recruit college graduates with a BCE skillset.
The UMD Provost’s Office also shared job outlook data provided by Emsi, with a focus on project trends in the field of bioinformatics across the Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. region. The analysis suggests that, in Maryland, bioinformatics jobs will increase from approximately 60,000 jobs to 70,000 jobs between 2018 and 2028, reflecting a 16% increase. The same analysis projected a 7% increase across the full national capital region, and a 16% increase nationwide over the same period. Even more, this analysis did not take into account the potential impact of Amazon’s second headquarters (Amazon HQ2) in Arlington, Virginia, for which construction is scheduled to be completed in 2023.
A versatile degree that fuels innovation in the medical field
BCE faculty member Lan Ma noted that graduates from the BCE program will have a unique opportunity to immediately impact human health. This is due to the fact that solutions for today’s most pressing health challenges – such as new therapies for neurodegenerative diseases and newly emerging infectious diseases, and rapid vaccine development – rely on computer modeling, bioinformatics, analysis of large and complex data sets, and many other important computational skills.
“The development of contemporary and future technology in human biology and medicine has become increasingly computation-based,” Ma said. “As we emphasize precise and cost-effective solutions to health care problems ranging from disease diagnosis and treatment to drug discovery, quantitative methods from the disciplines of mathematics, computer science and engineering have shown great promise to provide the innovative resolution. The BCE curriculum highlights fundamental as well as specialized quantitative skills that would meet the fast-growing biocomputational demands in the medical and health care industries.”
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