May 5, 2018

UMMS, PKUHSC to launch bioinformatics dual degree

PKUHSC Dean of Basic Sciences Yuxin Yin (center left) with UMMS Bioinformatics Chair Brian Athey (center) and Professor of Bioinformatics Margit Burmeister.

A new dual degree initiative between the Bioinformatics departments at the University of Michigan Medical School and Peking University Health Science Center (PUHSC) is set to launch next year.

The program will bring top graduate students from China to Ann Arbor starting in the fall of 2019. Participants will split their time between U-M and the PUHSC campus in Beijing, earning a master’s degree from each institution. The initiative marks a meaningful expansion of the ongoing partnership between the two medical schools, collaborations that are administered through the UMMS-PUHSC Joint Institute for Translational and Clinical Research.

“This is taking a successful research platform and adding an education component, which will only serve to make the partnership stronger,” said UMMS Professor of Bioinformatics Margit Burmeister, PhD, who has long had partnerships in China and is helping to shape the new dual degree program.

“Big data is a good area to focus on because it is such a growth field. In China, they have strong traditional disciplines – medicine, engineering, computer science. But bioinformatics is about putting those individual disciplines together into a meaningful degree program, something we at U-M have a lot of experience in,” Burmeister said.

A leadership group from PUHSC visited Ann Arbor earlier this month to work through the program details with UMMS Joint Institute leaders and leaders from the Bioinformatics department. UMMS is set to take 4-5 students the first year, with an opportunity for program expansion down the road. In the course of three years, combining coursework and research, participants will earn a master’s in science from PUHSC and a master’s in bioinformatics from U-M.

Bioinformatics uses computers to sort, analyze, and interpret the huge genomic datasets that are increasingly prevalent in precision healthcare. Michigan Medicine has one of the United States’ largest and most well established bioinformatics programs. PUHSC recently launched its own, and students are seeking any advantage to establish themselves in the relatively nascent field.

“Bioinformatics is growing so fast in China that many students want a master’s degree and then they want to begin their career. If a student is able to get a degree from both PUHSC and UM, that will set them apart,” said Yuxin Yin, MD, PhD, Dean of Basic Sciences and Director of the Institute of Systems Biomedicine at PUHSC. “There is a lot of interest in this program among our students.”

The new dual degree initiative with PUHSC follows a similar partnership with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen which will bring students from that campus to Ann Arbor to study bioinformatics beginning next year as well. In that case, the students will get an accelerated undergraduate degree from their home university and a master’s from UMMS.

Such international partnerships benefit the UMMS bioinformatics program in the short-term and long-term, said Brian Athey, the Michael Savageau Collegiate Professor and Chair of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics.

“I’m very enthused about this partnership, including the possibility of expanding to get some of our students in China, too,” said Professor Athey. “Without question, China is the place where biotechnology is having the biggest growth and attracting the most investment currently, so being able to offer our students the opportunity to learn about what’s happening and make connections there is vital.”