Augustana University will offer South Dakota’s first undergraduate program in bioinformatics as both a major and minor beginning in the fall — adding to the list of interdisciplinary academic programs being developed as part of Augustana’s strategic plan Viking Bold: The Journey to 2030.
Dr. Carrie Olson-Manning, associate professor of biology and bioinformatics program coordinator, describes bioinformatics as the application of computational tools to biology.
“Bioinformatics is concerned with implementing tools to analyze big data across biology — all the way from inside the cell and genome to ecological systems,” Olson-Manning said. “We also need to develop new tools to analyze the data, so bioinformatics is a very interdisciplinary field.”
The major and minor will consist of courses in biology, computer science, mathematics and chemistry, as well as a newly-developed bioinformatics capstone course. The capstone will allow students to put together a portfolio of their work and reflect on the bioinformatics major or minor and what it means for their future careers.
Scott Shlanta ‘24, who plans to be a physician, has already considered how bioinformatics can benefit his future career.
“Bioinformatics merges two of the most incredible things happening in science today — especially for myself, as a biologist, this gene editing/CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology is one of the most important things that a person can study right now,” Shlanta said. “Additionally, there's this huge revolution in computer science with AI (artificial intelligence). Bioinformatics gives you a chance to study both of those things and see how they interact, and can be an incredibly valuable skill to have in the future, especially going into the medical field.”
Olson-Manning, along with Assistant Professor of History Dr. Will Wright, is also developing a study-abroad course for the program called Bioinformatics in Costa Rica.
“We'll be looking at the history of conservation and considering how we can use bioinformatics to help conservation efforts,” said Olson-Manning.
Olson-Manning sees this study-abroad course as a full-circle experience because of Augustana’s collaboration with Seeds of Change — a nonprofit organization whose aim is to get high school students involved in STEM research well before they reach college. The organization offers a 10-day bioinformatics immersion program in Costa Rica for high schoolers, which Augustana transcripts for credit.
“We're going to have this group of students who know about Augie because they're being transcripted (for course credit), they've heard the term ‘bioinformatics’ and they have even done the research,” Olson-Manning said. “Then they can come to Augie and further that interest. And, they'll have the opportunity to go back to Costa Rica and maybe extend what they were doing before or start something new. I'm most excited about that.”
Andrew Berntson ‘25 — who, along with Shlanta, is spending his summer in Olson-Manning’s lab doing bioinformatics research — said if he would have arrived at Augustana just a year later, he would have been a bioinformatics major.
“When I started looking for colleges in high school, I was looking for bioinformatics,” Berntson said. “And, there were a couple programs at other universities, but I really wanted to come to Augie. Augie didn't have bioinformatics as a major at the time, so I just decided to study biology and computer science.”
With the addition of bioinformatics, not only is Augustana the first university in the state to offer the program at the undergraduate level, but the program itself is unique when compared to universities in neighboring states. Augustana is the only university in the region to require courses in both data science and artificial intelligence due to their increasing importance in all computational sciences. The Augustana Bioinformatics Program also allows students to dive deeper into software engineering, the mathematical tools of data science or pursue a track in environmental data analysis.
“I think we're on the leading edge here of offering something that is of such growing importance in the biomedical sciences and biological research,” said Olson-Manning.
To learn more about Augustana’s biology department, visit augie.edu/biology-department.