Greeting the sound of growth

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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The sound of construction workers renovating a space below Michael Smith's department office doesn't bother him.

As the chair of Simon Fraser University's three-year-old depart-ment of molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB), Smith welcomes the sound of growth.

The construction of the MBB department's first, and much needed, computer lab is overdue says Smith. It is tentatively slated to open in June.

Before renovation of this space, his department had to limit student enrollment in bioinformatics (the study of computational information about genes and proteins) courses to one third of those applying.

“This new facility will accommodate 28 students at one time,” says Smith. “It will be the centrepiece for teaching genomics, bioinformatics, proteomics and structural biochemical exercises, such as molecular modelling.”

Those subjects are the offspring of biochemistry and molecular biology - the foundation of modern medical research in the 21st century.

Smith says the drive to understand the structure, function and evolution of genes and proteins at an atomic level is a primary goal of his department.

“The whole edifice of modern medicine is tied to understanding the fundamental biology of the human organism, and other organisms comparatively,” explains Smith.

“What are the biochemical and molecular processes that cause diseases in organisms? The better we understand those fundamental processes, the better we can address diseases.”

Smith figures increased public awareness of modern molecular biology and biochemistry, even in high schools, and his department's interdisciplinary approach to teaching and researching this material are drawing students to the department's door.

Compared to spring 2000, the number of graduate students in MBB this spring is up 80 per cent to 68.

Since spring 2001, the number of MBB majors has increased 94 per cent to 264.

As well as updating and adding lab courses to meet the demand for expertise in bioinformatics, SFU's MBB department is creating new programs.

A joint major in molecular biology and computing sciences was recently approved by Senate.

The department, along with the school of computing science, is putting the finishing touches on a post-graduate diploma in bioinformatics, targeting academics and health professionals.

Another sign that SFU's MBB department has placed its finger accurately on the pulse of modern science, especially medicine, is the department's growing pool of high profile faculty members.

They are attracting more grants and faculty fellowships.

Since spring 2000, the amount of research grants coming to MBB faculty collectively has increased 283 per cent to nearly $7 million a year.

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