Course 6/7 joint major proposed

If approved in Dec., could start taking students this fall

A bachelor’s degree in computer science and molecular biology was proposed by the Departments of Biology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at the Nov. 17 faculty meeting. At the faculty meeting, Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, head of the EECS department, said that the EECS faculty “basically unanimously endorsed” the proposal. Commentary at the meeting was so positive that at the end of the discussion, MIT President Susan J. Hockfield asked, “Anyone else want to join the love-fest?”

If the proposal passes at the next faculty meeting in December, it will begin admitting students next fall.

The joint program includes eight courses from the EECS department and 7.5 courses from the biology department. “Here you have arguably the best computer science department in the world, and the biology department is probably the best or one of the best quantitatively oriented biology departments,” said Chris Kaiser, head of the biology department. “So, in a sense, just by taking off the shelf the courses we already have in these disciplines, we’re probably making a program that will be one of the best in the country.”

Students will be given an adviser in both departments, but the student can choose which one will have registration signature authority.

“The thing that I’m most happy with and find the most exciting is … setting this up as an equal partnership between the two departments rather than having a biology track in Course 6 or a CS track in biology,” Kaiser said. “The idea is to really marry the two departments and have an equal partnership. This 50/50 partnership between the two departments creates new incentives for biology and Course 6 to teach courses together.”

Faculty from both departments have been working on developing this program for the past five years.

“Both biology faculty and CS faculty have been very interested in this area of computational biology for awhile. And there are MIT students who are very alert to new and exciting fields that have been interested as well,” Kaiser said. “We knew from the beginning that we were going to be creating something really good for students.”

The idea first began at a task force formed to look at general institute requirements (GIRs) about five years ago. According to Kaiser, they found that there were not many programs at MIT that taught the “interfaces between traditional disciplines,” and a subgroup of the task force was charged with finding a solution for the problem.

As an example of a joint program solution, Kaiser and Grimson put together a mock-up of a joint degree from courses 6 and 7. Although the mock-up was not embraced by the committee, Kaiser and Grimson liked the idea so much that they decided to continue to develop the idea.

While no surveys or focus groups to poll students about the new proposal have been conducted, the committee is confident of student interest. “For those of us who advise students in this area, we can see it both in our advisees and the enrollment in the various bioinformatics courses that exist. It’s become something that we just see so clearly,” Kaiser said.

The committee plans on continuing to develop the curriculum using input from students and selected experts from biotechnology companies after getting students in the program. “The idea is to have the students and external consiglieres from companies help us figure out how to build the program, how to grow it,” Kaiser said. One example Kaiser gave of how to grow the program was the implementation of the fifth-year master’s program (MEng). There is currently no proposal to include a fifth year and students would not be eligible to apply for the existing Course 6 MEng program.

To raise more awareness about the cross-section of biology and computer science, the departments are talking about bringing in people from the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. “We’re talking about having a series of pizza gatherings in the spring and bringing people in to talk about various sorts of intellectually exciting things that are going on in this area but talk about it in the context of various career things that one could do,” Kaiser said.