A Growing Need for Biotech Experts in the COVID Era

The biotech field is booming, and the coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted the pressing need for biotechnology researchers to collaborate and race to develop vaccines at a rapid pace worldwide. This novel SARS-CoV-2 virus and its uncontained spread has drawn the world’s attention to scientists and engineers working toward a solution to the crisis.

Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies Ian White helped establish the University of Maryland’s B.S. in Biocomputational Engineering program. “Today more than ever our world is in need of new therapies – for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and newly emerging infectious diseases,” says White. “Moreover, the importance of rapid vaccine development is more clear than ever. Solving these problems requires computer modeling, bioinformatics, analysis of large and complex data sets, and many other important computational skills.”  

Applying Unique Expertise to Tackle COVID-19

In addition to vaccine development, researchers play a leading role in determining where and how vaccines should be disseminated, such as to curb the spread of COVID-19. Biostatisticians collect and analyze COVID-19 data to draw conclusions about the virus’ spread using statistical modeling. This data is available to the public, and can include information such as the zip codes, ages, and additional tracing information to map where and how the disease has spread. Analysis of this data can also shed new light on how critical factors such as racial disparities in health care are further exacerbated by COVID-19.

As researchers and federal agencies work together to slow the spread of the coronavirus, questions remain about the potential benefits or impacts of delaying second dosages. Vast expertise spanning big data, statistics, modeling, and even biology is needed to answer many of these high-priority questions.

Nick Giroux is a recent BIOE graduate in his third year of Ph.D. work at Duke University. His current research focuses on the bioinformatic analysis of infectious disease. “Pre-COVID, we spent a lot of time studying HIV and disease progression in high risk subjects, but we sort of pivoted this past year,” explains Giroux. “A lot of my work now has been informed by coronavirus.” 

One of the most pressing questions facing scientists and clinicians today concerns how long previously infected or vaccinated persons can expect full or partial immunity to the disease.

When people become infected with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, the immune cells carried by the blood are activated to produce a pathogen-specific profile, often referred to as the “host response.”

“We study that host response and try to exploit it to learn more about the particular molecular mechanisms of infection,” says Giroux. “That will help us learn how to treat people better, and diagnose people faster. I study the epigenome, which is basically the regulation in a cell that controls how the DNA is read and expressed. And, it has a lot of insight to offer about how people fight off disease and it's actually predictive of their future trajectories. So, we sort of leverage all of that to learn something about, for example, for COVID subjects – how they fight off a more mild form of the disease or a more severe form of the disease, and how that immune response changes over time. 

“What we're moving towards in the future is actually trying to predict prognosis,” Giroux continues. “So will these patients get better or worse? Do they need a particular type of treatment? Are they at risk for death or hospitalization or something like that? Our research is very computational-based, we use a lot of data science skills to pursue answers to these questions.” 

Did you know... the Clark School is now accepting transfer applications for  Fall 2021 enrollment in the Biocomputational Engineering degree program?Check  out the application checklist to see if you can begin to work toward your B.S.  in biocomputational engineering this fall!

If you hope to one day apply computational modeling or big data analysis for the advancement of disease or vaccine research, you just might be the perfect candidate for a degree in biocomputational engineering. With a University of Maryland degree in biocomputational engineering, graduates of our program will enter a fast-growing workforce armed with a unique ability to model complex biological systems and data sets in order to create new knowledge such as to support public health response to emerging threats. 

Has the COVID-19 pandemic made you want to understand – and help slow – the spread of infectious disease? Download our guide to learn all about our biocomputational engineering degree!

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