Change could be coming for UI graduate informatics program


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The University of Iowa Graduate Informatics Program hopes to bring together students across numerous disciplines with the goal of solving complex problems.

But the recently created program is experiencing growing pains, and members of a new task force within informatics are planning to reinvent it.

“We’re at the beginning of discussions of major changes,” said James Cremer, a professor of computer science and member of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in the Informatics advisory council.  “The question is: can we make this program a lot more than it is? Can we make this something big?”

The Informatics Program was created in 2005, and it currently enrolls 20 graduate students in two subtracks: health informatics and information sciences. The program also offers specializations in bioinformatics and geoinformatics.

Professor Nick Street, the director of the Health Informatics and Information Sciences subtracks, said the current program is good but small.

“Our budget includes fellowships, half a secretary, and a few pizzas every year,” he said. “We’ve done a good job with the curriculum cobbled together from other departments.”

Street noted that the current Informatics Program doesn’t have its own courseload. It uses courses from other disciplines to supplement the learning done through the program.

“The first thing we need is space, a physical location to begin with,” Street said. “If we don’t have a place for students to sit, it’s tough to build a sense of community.”

He also hopes the program will grow to include faculty affiliation with informatics and be able to use that staff to help across the college.

“It’s no one’s actual job to do this,” Street said. “Whether full-time or some portion of faculty allocation, I hope it won’t just be voluntary.”

Yang Xu, a graduate student in the Informatics Program, said informatics affects more disciplines than most people realize.

“[Informatics] is very important,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about data, and in order to analyze that, you have to do something with informatics.”

In Xu’s work in the program, he uses data downloaded from the hospitals and applies data-mining techniques in cancer genetic research and mutations, with the ultimate goal of collecting as much data as possible to make sense of trends.

Xu hopes the program grows.

“I definitely support a larger program with more students, more faculty, and more research,” he said. “And collaborating with other students, not only in health, is a very good idea.”

The UI is just one of many schools with an informatics or information science program, and dozens have joined an organization called iSchools.

J.D. Ross, the conference coordinator for iSchools, said there are several advantages to joining the group.

“One of the advantages of joining the iSchools organization is to make it easier for member schools to reach common objectives with a collective commitment of resources,” he wrote in an email. “Each year, the organization hosts the iConference, a multi-day event dedicated to scholarly presentations and discussions from the information studies and library-science disciplines.”

Currently, 39 universities and colleges are under the iSchool umbrella. In order to become an iSchool organization member, an institution must show proof of “substantial sponsored research activity” — an average of $1 million in research expenditures per year over thee years, the training of future researchers, and a commitment to progress in the information field.

Street thinks before the Informatics Program can apply to part of iSchools, it needs more visibility.

“We have pockets in other departments; our school is scattered around campus,” he said. “If we want to get the university to talk about iSchool, we need a school.”

But Street thinks the Informatics Program can make the necessary changes.

“What I would like to see is a stable, well-funded program taking advantage of our expertise,” he said. “The right people are here already; it’s just a matter of getting something put together.”

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