Dean Phil Bourne's Four-Decade Career Honored in Special Issue of Biomolecules

Emma Candelier and Cam Mura
January 13, 2023

The University of Virginia School of Data Science is pleased to announce the publication of a festschrift in honor of Dean Bourne, a special issue of the journal Biomolecules. This volume, titled Biomolecular Data Science—in Honor of Professor Philip E. Bourne, is co-edited by Cameron Mura (UVA) and Lei Xie (CUNY Hunter College), both of whom have been long-time collaborators and mentees of Bourne.

The special issue is a tribute to Bourne’s four-decade career, which has seen us progress from the audacious goal of genomics in the 1980s (“Let’s sequence all the DNA in an entire organism”), to the seemingly impossible ambition of the late 1990s (“Let’s solve the three-dimensional structures of all the proteins in an organism”), to—most recently—a revolution at the intersection of data science and the biological sciences. This disruption is being fueled by the melding of data science tools and techniques, such as deep learning, with biological systems and problems. This synergistic partnership has ushered in what may be the most profound string of advances since Watson & Crick’s model of DNA, published 70 years ago.  Over Bourne’s impressive career, entirely new disciplines have appeared, including bioinformatics, computational biology, systems biology, and many ‘-omics’ areas, to name but a few. Today, we stand at the doorstep of what Bourne and others envision as a ‘biomolecular data science’.

Phil BourneWhat was Bourne’s involvement in getting us to this point? As described in a tribute piece accompanying the Special Issue, he “spent much of his career exploring and helping define the intersection of biomolecules and computation.” Bourne’s efforts took many forms. As a practicing scientist he pioneered a field known as structural bioinformatics, which seeks to elucidate the detailed relationships between the sequences, structures, and functions of biological molecules. Bourne’s highly collaborative and foundational work shaped the field from inception, and his work's application had a significant impact on a vast array of biological realms, including early-stage drug discovery, molecular evolution, immunology, and more. Bourne has published over 300 papers and two related books (which have been cited over 75,000 times). He has mentored countless researchers in academia, industry and government, he has fostered new partnerships and cross-continent collaborations, and he’s been a champion of open scholarship for over two decades. At UVA, he is applauded as an innovative academic leader and is the founding Dean of the School of Data Science.

The Special Issue will include more than a dozen select papers, with contributions from scholars and luminaries worldwide. Five countries are represented and the issue's senior contributors have been cited collectively nearly 400,000 times. As a fitting tribute to the interdisciplinarity of Bourne’s career, the breadth of work published in this issue runs the gamut, from classic structural bioinformatics and drug design to the recently appreciated ‘social determinants of health’, to machine learning’s interplay with quantum computing and synthetic organic chemistry—all in biomedical contexts.

A festschrift is a book or other type of volume that honors a highly respected individual, usually an academic, and is presented during their lifetime. Biomolecules chose Bourne not just because of his past contributions and their historical impact, but also because of his innate drive to look toward the future. He applies this forward vision to all his many efforts, whether towards envisioning and shaping the future of biomolecular data science or building a new kind of school of data science at UVA. Accompanying the special issue is a tribute piece written by Mura, Xie, and Emma Candelier (UVA) that pays homage to Bourne personally and professionally. A candid interview posted to the MDPI Blog provides firsthand responses by Bourne on his career in bioinformatics, history with open access, and leadership within academic data science.

Bourne is the founding dean of the School of Data Science, the newest and 12th School to be formed in the University’s 200-year history. He was the first Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Industrial Alliances at the University of California San Diego and the first Associate Director for Data Science at the National Institutes of Health. As Dean, Bourne is creating a new kind of school, one guided by common goals: to further discovery, share knowledge, and make a positive impact on society through collaborative, open, and responsible data science research and education. Founded in 2019 through a $120 million gift, the largest in UVA history, the School is positioned to play an integral leadership role in the global digital future. Focusing on interdisciplinary, collaborative research and education, the School joins other departments across UVA, the community, industry, government, and non-profit organizations to use data science to further discovery and make a positive impact on society.