Building Impact for Evolutionary Research
Evolution is Barrie Robison’s passion. And as the new director of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST), there are none better suited to help U of I faculty adapt, evolve and overcome in this increasingly complex area in biology.
Over two decades, IBEST has grown from grassroots meetings between biological science faculty to a robust program that’s solidified U of I as one of the world’s top universities for bioinformatics and evolutionary studies.
Robison is now ready to build on that success.
“My job is to make the research better for scientists in our portfolio, to help faculty reach their full potential as researchers,” Robison said. “I oversee a great team of staff that directly helps researchers get proposals funded, manage their budgets and collect data. I also oversee, maintain and invest in our two core facilities that all these people rely on.”
These two dedicated core facilities support faculty in computational resources and genomics — key components of evolutionary studies.
Robison champions IBEST’s “triangle of collaboration,” a model developed by the IBEST Genomics Resources core that brings together IBEST’s molecular biologists, bioinformaticians and the investigator. Together, they help researchers navigate around the many potential pitfalls of the complex genome science vital to modern evolutionary research.
“For example, the world is full of less-than-useful genomics data because it wasn’t adequately designed to answer a question,” Robison said. “We bring investigators in to meet with experts in molecular studies, bioinformatics and other areas at the conception of the experiment to ensure they get the data that answers their questions.”
Robison firmly believes that his employees are the keys to building impact for the researchers they serve.
“We have an A-plus staff that help investigators make their research more productive,” Robison said. “We help faculty write and get their proposals funded. Once they’re funded, our staff helps them get the most out of their research dollars by investing in seminars, technology access grants and support meetings.”
Before taking his new role this spring, Robison was associate director of IBEST for four years. In that role, he oversaw the core facilities and supported both Larry Forney and Jack Sullivan, IBEST’s previous two directors. Before that, he was a faculty member in U of I’s Department of Biological Sciences, where he still teaches classes in genetics. He received the Early Career Faculty Award from the College of Science in 2009 and an Excellence in Teaching Award from the University of Idaho in 2017.
“Barrie brings years of quality service and experience to IBEST including an intimate knowledge of current capabilities and a vision for future IBEST contributions to modern evolutionary research,” said Janet E. Nelson, U of I's Vice President for Research and Economic Development. “I am excited to have him lead this University Level III entity and guide our continued research excellence.”
Robison says his specialties lie in evolutionary biology in fish, as well as genetics and video games. That combination of specialties also puts Robison in a unique position to lead IBEST, which is home to Polymorphic Games, which designs videos games programmed to evolve in response to a player's actions.
In this lab, housed at the U of I’s Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC), Robison and computer science Professor Terry Soule served as executive producers for “Darwin’s Demons,” a video game modeled on biological evolution. Robison and Soule armed the game’s villains with “digital genomes,” allowing them to adapt and eventually beat the player at his or her own strategies.
“Polymorphic Games recruits students from all the disciplines required to make a commercial video game, including biology, computer science, art, design, music, business and theater. This interdisciplinarity stems directly from the culture of IBEST,” Robison said.
In total, IBEST serves investigators across nearly 20 academic departments and five colleges, but Robison is always looking to help more researchers, particularly those in agriculture and animal science.
“Evolution matters in ag,” Robison said. “Wireworms are adapting to our chemicals. That’s evolution. We’re trying to identify genetic markers in beef cattle for a variety of commercially important traits. And we’re interested in studying microbiomes in all kinds of environments. Our partnerships with faculty in these areas make a direct impact.”
To learn more about working with IBEST, contact Barrie Robison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-885-7137.
Article by Phillip Bogdan, Office of Research and Economic Development