On Aug. 8, NIEHS welcomed Jian-Liang (Jason) Li, Ph.D., as the new head of the Integrative Bioinformatics Support Group. Li replaced David Fargo, Ph.D., who founded the group and ran it for six years.
According to Li, who is a former director of the Applied Bioinformatics Core at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute at Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida, the support group plays a crucial role in NIEHS research.
“Next-generation sequencing and other high-throughput technologies have changed the way we study human health and diseases,” he said. Next-generation sequencing refers to several forms of DNA and RNA sequencing technology. “With the massive amounts of data generated by various technologies, bioinformatics is critical in making sense of these biological data and revealing new insights.”
“Previously an investigator could place 80 percent of his or her effort into data collection and 20 percent into data analysis,” Li explained. “Now it is easier to collect large amounts of data, but much more effort is needed to analyze them.”
“Jason has made a smooth transition into leadership here,” said Fargo, who now serves as the first NIEHS Scientific Information Officer. “His enthusiasm and wealth of expertise, particularly at integrating and synthesizing genomic and proteomic studies, position the Integrative Bioinformatics Support Group for continued success.”
A career in bioinformatics, by chance
Li did not set out to build a career in bioinformatics. “It was chance that I wound up in bioinformatics,” he said. With a background in molecular biology, he applied to a related position at the Genetics Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Li was assigned instead to the bioinformatics department because the skill set was in high demand.
Later, after receiving his Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Boston University, Li moved to Florida, where he provided bioinformatics support for University of Florida researchers. There, he developed a vision for a core that was integrated and service-oriented.
Li established such a group at Lake Nona. The team provided large-scale data analysis and integration services, using a variety of approaches. In addition, he coordinated with information technology groups to develop computational resources and data storage systems. He also collaborated with lab scientists for study design, data analysis, and data mining. Li has authored 50 publications and has three patents.
Collaboration will continue
The scientists in the NIEHS Bioinformatics Support Group have worked with more than half of the labs at the institute. Li noted that many members of his team work closely with lead researchers at NIEHS and contributed significantly to the research projects. As a result, they have been first authors or co-authors on multiple studies each year. He intends to continue and expand this trend.
Close collaboration is especially important when choosing among analytical approaches. “You may have the same data, but different investigators may ask various questions, which could require different methods of analysis,” Li explained. “This is one of the ways a highly skilled bioinformatics group can provide superior service to the institute.”
(Simone Otto, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research and Training Award postdoctoral fellow in the Ion Channel Physiology Group.)