Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

An interdepartmental, undergraduate Specialist Program at the University of Toronto, jointly sponsored by the Departments of Biochemistry, Cell & Systems Biology, Computer Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and Molecular Genetics

What is the single most important scientific advance of the last century? It could be the invention of the computer, the success story of information science. Or it could be decoding the molecular basis of life. While these two advances seem completely different, they are, in fact, intimately related. In principle, life is an expression of pure information, encoded in physical molecules. The more we discover about the details, the more we find that molecular biology is an information science as much as it is a physical science.

Molecule and Information: DNA is a chemical substance that directs the synthesis of polypeptides; these spontaneously self-organize to the molecular machines that make life possible. The sequence of DNA defines the synthesis, just as letters in this text carry its meaning.

Genome sequencing, transcriptome analysis, proteomics and the study of cellular “systems” have given us breathtaking insights into the inner workings of biological function at the molecular level. However, a deep understanding of the complex organization of the cell and the interaction of its components has yet to be achieved. Substantial further progress is needed to make our science predictive, to fulfil the promises of “post-genomic” biology.

A schematic of cellular components involved in replication and their interactions. This type of model may be an approach towards computational prediction of biological processes.

Bioinformatics builds the toolbox of this science. We design methods that make biological information computable – we abstract properties of molecules, cellular systems and biological organisms, we build large computer systems to efficiently store and manage the very large volumes of data that are being accumulated in our laboratories, we support sensitive analyses and discover significant associations with sophisticated tools.

Computational biology is bioinformatics’ goal: we hope to advance our understanding of life through computational analysis, modeling, and prediction. The modeling of relationships, the analysis of theoretical abstractions, such as graphs, networks and systems, and their integration into computational models will lead us to a better understanding of life in its molecular detail. The dream we pursue is to explain life, and to provide the insights we need for biotechnology and molecular medicine.

Biological Data Analysis in Your Career

Biotechnology industry professionals see three major needs: biological analysts, who are involved in experimental work and trained in bioinformatics applications, software engineers with enough domain knowledge to be able to support method- and database integration, and the true generalist with enough skills in both areas to develop new methods and original, innovative research strategies. It is the rare, latter individual who is also most highly sought in the academic sector and the BCB Program’s goal is to provide in-depth training for such generalists. Graduates of the program would typically pursue graduate studies in any of the participating departments: Computer Science, Biochemistry, Cell & Systems Biology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, or Molecular Genetics. Their professional careers may span a wide range of opportunities, including academic research, clinical medicine, drug development, agrotechnology or even patent law.

What the Program Offers

The Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Specialist Program provides a balance between computer science, mathematics and statistics, and biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology and genetics. The Program leaves ample space to add advanced courses in Computer Science or Life Science specializations, to prepare for graduate studies, and perhaps fulfill the requirements for a Major in those programs, in parallel with a BCB Specialization. The BCB Program emphasizes research experience: in fact almost a sixth of the required course credits are hands-on project courses in one of the University’s many laboratories. The unique concentration of scientists in the field, a thriving landscape of graduate and postgraduate research, the Collaborative Graduate Specialization in Bioinformatics and Genome Biology, and numerous advanced research opportunities offer many, many opportunities to advance your own academic career.

Who We Are Looking For

If you would like to become part of one of science’s greatest adventures, if you are looking for a challenging program in an outstanding academic environment, if you are exceptionally motivated and committed to excellence, we would like to hear from you. Students are advised that the very rigorous courses that constitute the Program, the very limited overlap in course material between the theory-centric and the biology-centric courses, and the different academic cultures in the life- and computer sciences, make this Program suitable only for the academically strongest and most highly motivated students on campus.

Proposed changes (pending governance approval) for the next POSt selection cycle in 2020 will see the BCB program changed to a “limited” POSt, with admission based on averages of grades in (BIO130H1,(CSC108H1/CSC148H1)) or in (BIO230H1,CSC236), to admit a cohort size of 30. Students will have priority enrolment access for CSC courses if admitted to the BCB program.


Please refer to Programs administered by the Department of Cell and Systems Biology for POSt details, with links to courses.

Specialist program:(12.5 full courses or their equivalent)

First or second year:
Foundational courses (5 Credits total)

(MAT135H1, MAT136H1)/MAT137Y1/MAT157Y1 (Mathematics)
(CSC108H1, CSC148H1) (Programming & Computer Science)
(CSC165H1, CSC236H1)/CSC240H1 (Mathematical Reasoning, Theory of Computation)Note 1
CSC263H1/CSC265H1 (Data Structures)
(CHM135H1, CHM136H1)/CHM151Y1 (Chemistry)
BIO130H1 (Biology)

Upper years:
Program requirements (7.5 Credits total)

STA247H1/STA255H1/STA257H1 (Statistics)
CSC207H1 (Software Design)
CSC209H1 (Software Tools)
CSC373H1/CSC375H1 (Algorithm Design)
BIO230H1/BIO255H1 (Biology)
BIO260H1/HMB265H1 (Genetics)
(BCH210H1, (BCH311H1/MGY311Y1/CSB349H1))/BCH242Y1 (Biochemistry/Molecular Biology)
BCH441H1/CSB472H1 (Bioinformatics)
BCB330Y1 (Special Project)
BCB410H1 (Applied Bioinformatics)
BCB420H1 (Computational Systems Biology)
BCB430Y1 (Advanced Special Project)

Note 1: The “missing” half-credit of the substitution does not have to be replaced. For details, please refer to the Computer Science Program instructions in this Calendar.

Course substitutions are possible with written permission of the Program Director.
Note that the requirements for a co-sponsoring Department’s major can normally be fulfilled with 0.5 to 3.5 additional credits.

Former BCB students found they benefitted from taking CSB352H1, Bioinformatic Methods. They also found it to be helpful to take BCH441H1 prior to BCB410H1 due to BCB410H1’s R programming requirement.

All Major programs in the co-sponsoring life science departments require BIO120H1, however BIO120H1 is not formally a part of this Specialist Program’s requirements.

Application and Admission*

Application to UofT
First year applicants to the University should follow the application procedures outlined on the Faculty of Arts and Science Web site. Proposed to change for 2020! Current details for admission to the BCB Program are listed here, under “Type 1 Programs”. Students who are interested in BCB should apply to the Sciences program division on St. George Campus. You may choose any related “Subject of Major Interest” (e.g. Biology) for your application, these are collected by the universities for informational purposes and are not binding for students’ course or program choices.

First Year Courses
The required first and second year courses are listed above. Note that this set of courses is specific to the BCB Program and “pure” Life-Sciences or Computer Sciences first-year course sets would differ. This means that even though you will enroll in the Program in your second year at the University, you should make the decision to take these courses as early as possible, ideally on admission, as you choose your first year courses. However, should you change your mind at a later time, there are ways to make up for missing prerequisites. Often this involves the opportunity to take courses during the summer. First year students pay the normal tuition fees.

Enrolment into the Program
Proposed to change for 2020! Enrolment to the BCB POSt (Program of Study) is not capped and has no GPA cutoff. However, the Program is rigorous and not suitable for all students. We previously required a minimum GPA of 3.2 (roughly 80%) for first year courses. We have dropped this requirement and trust that students will make their own, informed, adult decisions about their academic career. This does not mean that the Program has become “easier”. After enrolment into the BCB POSt, “deregulated” tuition fees will apply. BCB is a type “1S” Program (open enrolment, deregulated tuition fees), for enrolment details see here. The enrolment period typically begins in early July.

Transfer Students
Transfer options to the University of Toronto, Faculty of Arts and Science are listed on the Faculty’s Transfer Student pages both for transfer within the University and from other Universities. The Transfer office handles decisions on transfer credits.

POSt Transfer Options
Numerous transfer options into life-science-only or computer-science-only POSts exist after the first, second and even after the third year. Most will require additional course work over the summer, but in general, transfer to each of the participating departments’ specialist or major programs will be possible without extending your time to graduate. Please enquire for details.

Additional Major
It is possible to fulfill the requirements in a Major in one of the sponsoring Departments with only 0.5 to 3.5 additional credits. In addition, students have found that enrolling in a Computer Science Major Program has opened additional course choices, since U of T’s Computer Science courses that are not part of the Program requirements are normally filled to capacity with students who have CS Program enrolment priority. Please enquire for details.

Graduate studies
The BCB Program alone may not necessarily be sufficient preparation for graduate studies in one of the co-sponsoring departments. We recommend that students engage with the Program Director and the Departments’ Graduate Coordinators early and on a continuing basis to include all courses that are required for their diverse career goals. Please enquire for details.

Sample Course Layout
We have prepared a few sample course schedules for illustration:
“Canonical” course layout for the BCB POSt.
Actual study plan – example 1: similar to canonical schedule.
Actual study plan – example 2: CSC courses taken later, after POSt change
Actual study plan – example 3: Professional Experience Year taken in 4th year

*Please note that while the information in this section is as accurate as we can reasonably maintain it, it is a digest of the applicable Faculty regulations and policies and is posted for approximate guidance only. Please refer to the Faculty’s official documents. When in doubt, ask your Registrar!

Contact, and Further Information

Please e-mail Prof. Nicholas Provart (the interim BCB Program Director) or phone him at 416-978-7141 if you have questions about applying to this undergraduate specialist program. He will be glad to update you with further information as it becomes available.

Last Update: June 28, 2019