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Master in Computational Biology Bioinformatics
Programmed for Biology

Published: 12.04.2007 06:00
Modified: 11.04.2007 22:50
Prof. Gaston Gonnet and Prof. Jörg Stelling on the new Masters Program in Computational Biology & Bioinformatics starting in the fall of 2007. The deadline for admissions is 30 April (1) .

Interview: Katja Abrahams

The new Masters Program in Computational Biology & Bioinformatics is a cooperation between ETH and the University of Zurich. How did the idea come up to create this joint study program?

Gaston Gonnet: Usually, it is very difficult to create a study program which involves several departments or institutions. However in this case, ETH and UniZH cooperated very well at all levels. ETH actually has a long tradition of joint programs between the Department of Computer Science and other departments at ETH and UniZH. For instance, we have been teaching a basic course in bioinformatics for biologists jointly with the University of Zurich for several years. So, it is natural that at a time when the schools adapt to the Bologna system of bachelor and master studies, we take advantage of our common knowledge and our tradition of interdisciplinarity in a joint master program.

Which departments are involved?

Jörg Stelling: The program involves the institutes of Mathematics, Informatics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Zurich and several departments of ETH: D-INFK, D-BIOL, D-ITET, D-MATH. The purpose is to establish a program with joint curricula and joint courses, where degrees are issued by the institution in which the students are enrolled. Maybe later there will be a joint degree issued by both universities. We can count on a significant amount of faculty members involved in computational biology or bioinformatics and interested in contributing to the program and making it diverse and interesting.

Who can apply?

Jörg Stelling: We would like to attract students with a bachelor degree from a broad number of disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, computer science or engineering. Depending on the disciplines they come from, students will have to take a few preparatory courses to acquire some additional basic knowledge needed for the master program. Since most of the courses will be taught in English, we hope that students from all over the world will enroll.

Prof. Jörg Stelling (left) and Prof. Gaston Gonnet

What does the structure of the curriculum look like?

Jörg Stelling: The aim of the curriculum is to provide the students with a broad education in computational biology and bioinformatics based on strong foundations in computer science, counting for two thirds of the program, biology and mathematics. The curriculum is designed to be completed in three semesters. Compared to other universities which have a rather strict syllabus with very few options to choose from, such as Oxford, students in Zurich will have much more flexibility. Participants will have a faculty member mentor to guide them in choosing courses that fit their individual background, interests and career goals.

In what particular areas will graduates of the master program find jobs?

Gaston Gonnet: A huge number of specialists will be required in this new field. Most people will be employed by biotech companies but also by more classical IT companies which will be providing more and more services in bioinformatics. Moreover, governments, regulatory bodies and social institutions, e.g. social and medical insurances, will also take a very large interest in these new technologies. Actually, some big companies, such as Microsoft and IBM, do already have research centers in computational biology.

How important will computational biology and bioinformatics be in the future?

Gaston Gonnet: The marriage between computation and biology will certainly be one of the most challenging areas of development in science and technology in the next 20 to 30 years. We would like to be able to understand biology in computational and mathematical terms in order to provide specialized care for every human. The possibilities of improving the quality of life by creating new treatments and drugs are enormous. Computational biology and bioinformatics is an extremely exciting area for people who want to do something new and challenging which has an impact on society and people’s lives.

(1 Further information at (

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