Seeing the Big Picture: Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology

It's only 1 year old, but the Ottawa Institute for Systems Biology (OISB) is emerging as Canada’s most important systems biology organization. It already has 20 scientists from disparate disciplines working together to apply a variety of computational and experimental tools to the study of human health and disease. And OISB is hiring. Like most systems biology centers, however, it's hard to know exactly what to call the kind of scientists they'll be hiring.

Systems biology organizations don't usually hire systems biologists, because, as OISB Director Daniel Figeys says, few people have the skills to call themselves systems biologists. "I don’t think there are many people around the world that can fully wear the hat of systems biology," he says. "But it doesn’t matter because the way that we’re trying to build systems biology is by bringing together pillars of expertise and letting the osmosis between them generate something new." The five new faculty members the Ottawa institute will add in the next few months are likely to be biologists, biochemists, and computational scientists; the "systems" part will emerge from the way they work together. "Systems biology is really a team effort, where everyone works together to form a cohesive community working on a unified problem. It’s all about breaking down the scientific barriers," says Figeys.

Getting Into View

OISB, says Figeys (pictured right), is a melting pot, attracting people from biology, chemistry, and computer science, all working on some of the biggest problems in biology. The institute's main mission is to study the functions of and interactions between biomolecules in their biological context, using computational tools.

"When you start to do systematic studies of biological systems and you gather information from different angles--meaning genomics, proteomics, and other approaches--and combine this information, you end up being able to do discoveries which would not be possible under each individual set of information," says Figeys. "That’s the power of systems biology."

Assistant Professor Kristin Baetz, who studies chromosome stability using yeast cells as a model, works with colleagues from different organizations, universities, programs, and disciplines. She finds this kind of work stimulating: "The benefit for me is that I’m working in a really exciting field within a very collaborative setting."

The approach does pose some challenges. Although the massive scope of projects in systems biology makes collaborations necessary, some researchers undervalue multiauthored studies. But, says Baetz, the reality is that most of the high-impact papers published in systems biology have at least four senior authors on them: "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that just don’t understand what we’re doing and how we have to operate in order to get to where we want to go. People who are trained in systems biology are just used to the idea of collaboration to get the job done--to answer the questions."

A Growing System

Nearly a year since it was established, 20 faculty members work at OISB, along with 41 postdocs, 59 graduate students, and 114 undergraduates. The staff is drawn from across Ottawa and beyond and from academia, government, and industry--places like Carleton University, the National Research Council of Canada, and Agriculture Canada. "Some of our members are interested in technological developments and designs that advance systems biology, while others are interested only in the research application of systems biology itself," says Figeys.

Now OISB is looking to recruit scientists from other institutions in Canada and to expand the faculty to 40 over the next few years. Although some of these new members, Figeys says, will remain affiliated with other organizations, each will bring along students and postdocs. When it is fully staffed, OISB will employ some 200 staff and students. Right now, the institute is looking to hire five new tenure-track faculty members from junior to established researchers with expertise from bioinformatics and systems modeling to genomics and lipomics.

To house the new recruits and amalgamate existing staff, the university is nearing completion of a building with 23,000 square feet of office, lab, and meeting space. "Currently, we are sort of virtual--localized at different parts of the campus--so we want to bring them together within a common space so that we can have the exchange of ideas that are so necessary for new developments to take shape," Figeys says.

Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology

The Need for Systematic Support

OISB's start-up funding is solid. The university's medical faculty has contributed $11.3 million, and grants have provided another $7 million. But the future is murkier, not only for OISB but also for other Canadian systems biology initiatives. Systems biology is just starting to be recognized by federal and provincial granting councils, says Figeys. So far, federal agencies such as Genome Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation have been supportive of OISB--particularly for health-related research--but more reliable means of support are necessary if the institute's future is to be assured. "There is no systematic effort in Canada to fund systems biology across the board," Figeys says.

The best thing for the future of Canadian systems biology, says Figeys, would be the creation of dedicated funding programs and a nationwide professional society, both working together to help support systems biology in Canada. To this end, a white paper will be published in April 2006 and presented to government and industry stakeholders. "It’s going to be pretty critical on how systems biology in our country is going to evolve in the future," says Figeys.

It's not just institutes that struggle with funding; postdocs and other early career researchers struggle, too. Jeff Smith, a first-year postdoc at OISB who studies cell signaling using proteomics, notes that with no specific categories for systems biology on research-grant applications, he has no choice but to place himself in direct competition with biochemists and biologists in other fields. "This is a challenge because I’m up against people that aren’t related to systems biology," says Smith. For now, young researchers have to rely on what Smith calls the open-mindedness of grant reviewers.

But Smith is optimistic about his career prospects. These difficulties, he says, are just part of the science. "Because a lot of our projects are trying to map out uncharted territories, there are a lot of trials and errors that you end up going through," says Smith. "That’s not indicative of this institute; it’s just the science."

Smith believes the challenges are more than offset by the advantages of such interesting work. Because systems biology has such a broad scope, Smith says, he and other researchers have the opportunity to extract more value from their work. "A single lab is not going to be able to solve a disease like cancer or diabetes, but when a lot of talented people combine their brainpower, combine the angles of their research, a big picture is formed," he says. "As a group at this institute, we’re pushing much more effectively and much more rapidly toward understanding the actual state of these diseases than we ever could otherwise."

For more information on OISB, visit their official Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

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