Growing the bioinformatics workforce to tackle big data


June 18, 2019

Developing a talented bioinformatics workforce is critically important to growing the biomedical and healthcare ecosystem in our region.

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that takes on the challenge of analyzing, visualizing, and interpreting large-scale biological data with the help of high-powered computing to advance our knowledge in multiple disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to precision medicine and cancer.    

Responding to this need, the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute (SALSI) has funded summer internships totaling $18,000 for three University of Texas at San Antonio students interested in receiving training in bioinformatics.

Robin Leach, Ph.D., professor of cell systems and anatomy and associate director of education for the Mays Cancer Center, is leveraging funds from SALSI and the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to facilitate these internships for the summer of 2019.

“Bioinformatic needs continue to grow and requires skilled professionals to help analyze the massive amounts of data being generated and to curate the data for a better understanding of the disease process,” said Dr. Leach, “This makes bioinformaticians key players in team science to accelerate biomedical discoveries.”

Meet these dedicated students and their mentors

Jamie Benavides and Jean Jiang, Ph.D.

Jamie Benavides is pursuing a B.S. in biochemistry and neurobiology. He will be working with UT Health San Antonio Ashbel Smith tenured professor of biochemistry and structural biology, Jean Jiang, Ph.D. to learn about the role of cell signaling through hemichannels in bone cells. Jamie aspires to be a neurological surgeon with a research interest in how protein synthesis affects cancer cells. Dr. Jiang will be the perfect mentor to guide Jamie through his career development.


Wala Elsharif and Jason Liu, Ph.D.

Wala Elsharif is pursuing a M.S. in computer science and is fluent in several programming languages. Previously, she was involved in a research project to develop algorithms predicting mental illness among workers in technology fields. She will be working with UT Health San Antonio assistant professor and CPRIT scholar, Jason Liu, Ph.D., focusing on the epigenetic architectures of cancers that resist hormone treatments. The aim of this project is to identify potential therapeutic targets that mitigate tumor development. Wala’s career goal is to learn more about machine learning in the healthcare field.


Aaron Ferrer and Yidong Chen, Ph.D.

Aaron Ferrer is pursuing a B.S. in computer engineering and is proficient in several programming languages, including Python and Matlab. Passionate about artificial intelligence (AI), he will be working with UT Health San Antonio professor and director of computational biology at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, Yidong Chen, Ph.D. The team will train a deep learning (DL) machine to predict the drug response of FDA-approved cancer treatments using genomic data. Further, Aaron and Dr. Chen will compare this DL method to other conventional machine learning tasks. His future goal is to learn how to use AI in agriculture to help tackle issues surrounding food security.     

Strong mentorship leads to big success

Two of the key predictors of student success are committed mentors and hands-on, career-related training. The professional environment offered by these internships at UT Health San Antonio will build both the technical and intellectual aptitudes of the trainees for smoother entry into the job market.

“Science is built on a foundation of mentors training the next generation of scientists especially in this era of big data. All of the mentors and their labs are pioneering applications of big data in the biomedical field,” said Jason Liu, Ph.D “And with SALSI facilitating strong mentorship, we are investing in people who will expand fields like precision medicine, our economy and contribute to the growing life-sciences ecosystem in Texas.” 

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