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Sanders combines computer science, biology


2010-08-13

Whitney Sanders 

Community of Scholars
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Computer science and biology are two vastly different fields of study, but for Whitney Sanders, one of 19 student research fellows in the Wofford College Community of Scholars program this summer, they correspond in ways that are becoming more apparent as his research progresses.

The Community of Scholars is a unique cross-disciplinary enterprise of Wofford College undergraduate students conducting independent research full time during 10 weeks of the summer. These student fellows representing many different majors are housed in The Village apartment-style housing complex. They conduct their research in collaboration with faculty fellows who are themselves engaged in their own research projects. Student and faculty research fellows in the humanities, sciences and social sciences create a community of scholars by meeting frequently, often over meals, to discuss their individual projects and issues of mutual interest.

Sanders, a rising junior from Spartanburg who is majoring in computer science, is bringing the two fields together at the request of Dr. Natalie Spivey, a faculty fellow in the Community of Scholars and a Wofford assistant professor of biology.

“Dr. Spivey proposed this idea to me because she needed a computer scientist who could analyze the massive amounts of data that come with genetic research,” Sanders says. “It turns out that biology and computer science intersect in many different ways. There is a massive amount of data in biology, and with computers, we can collect it faster than we can analyze it.

“For example, my experiment, where I will analyze gene expression in the plant Arabidopsis, actually has 120,000 data points. We would never be able to understand that just by looking at it, so we use computers to help us.”

Before he could begin his project, Sanders had to get up to speed in biology – not an easy task for someone who hadn’t taken it since his freshman year in high school.

It was a huge challenge, he admits. “I was trying to read a textbook that was meant for people who had already had biology as an undergraduate in college. Every other word made no sense to me and I was overwhelmed. So I made my own glossary with definitions of every word I didn’t know. That helped break it down for me. By the end of the first week I was already diving in. I figured it was the only way I was going to learn it.”

Now that he has, it’s forward march into familiar territory. Using computers, Sanders has three goals for his summer project.

“The first one is to find out which genes are important to Arabidopsis’ immune reaction to diseases,” he says. “The second is to find patterns among the genes that are important.

“Think of a gene as a recipe for making a cookie,” he explains. “If you express that gene five times, you end up with five cookies. Some genes are very important in fighting diseases, and when you introduce a disease to the plant, they will be expressed very highly. There are five different time points that you measure after introducing the disease … before the experiment, four hours into it, eight hours into it, etc. If a gene is expressed very highly at the start and stays level throughout, then it may be the same pattern as another gene. Those genes with similar patterns can be regulated by a common mechanism that says ‘turn on this gene.’”

That leads to Sanders’ most ambitious goal – “Find that mechanism.”

It won’t be an easy task. Sanders shows up at the lab every day at 8 a.m. and leaves around 5 p.m. He admits that he does break up his day as much as possible, whether it’s playing basketball or having lunch with his fellow scholars. Those lunches stir up conversations that take Sanders and the other scholars away from the depths of their own projects and into refreshing looks at other fields of study.

Such cross-disciplinary discussion is one of the primary purposes of the Community of Scholars – to have students and faculty from the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities to learn from each other not only regarding their specific topics of research, but also to learn how each discipline approaches research.

“I’ve been talking to Dr. (Robert) Moss (professor of biology) a lot about evolution, something I’m really interested in,” Sanders says. “Can it be combined with religion? What are the facts behind it and are they true or false? What parts are true? I don’t think either extreme is right, so finding the happy median is the goal there.

“I’ve also talked to (student) Katie Smith about her project, which is about expressionist art in Germany during the time of National Socialism. I would have never had any interest in that without developing an appreciation for research on my own.”

Sanders has developed an appreciation of other things as well.

“I’ve really gotten into biology,” he says. “What it’s telling me is that while biology may not be a career at this point, as a computer scientist I should find other things to apply my field to. I love applying computer science to something new.

“My research can really help biologists,” he notes. “So much needs to be done to add to the knowledge we have about these genes. If I can get to my third goal, which is finding a common regulatory mechanism, that might be a breakthrough. What I’d really like to know at the end of these 10 weeks is what challenges biologists face when they are analyzing their data, and maybe be able to write programs that will be generic assistance for them.”

Because of the Community of Scholars, a door has been opened for Sanders and his curiosity has been invited in. It’s safe to say he would like to stay a while.

“I’ve seen firsthand the vast amount of things that we don’t know, and the opportunities in front of us in terms of research,” he says. “We have so much room for improvement. For example, I’d like to think that in 100 years, our computers will be made out of living cells instead of computer chips. The cell works a lot like a computer. The computer at its core is binary, using zeroes and ones. A cell has four symbols, As, Ts, Cs and Gs. Those four symbols tell it what to do. It basically runs on programs just like a computer.”

One day, perhaps computer science and biology will go hand in hand, but first people like Sanders have to get us there.

- Brett Borden