Professor looks at the data in biology
When asked “how people began” by his 6-year-old daughter Brooke, Dr. Luay Nakhleh said that he did not have all the answers. However, as part of his job, he is looking for them.
To address the question of how life on Earth evolved, Nakhleh, an associate professor of computer science at Rice University and a Pearland resident, is developing computer software that will assist in tracing genetic histories and decoding genetic links between species.
It was announced in April that for his work in the area of organismic biology and ecology, Nakhleh has recently been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship grant that will allow him to further his research.
“Scientists estimate that life on earth began 3.8 million years ago,” Nakhleh said. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of data in biology today. Technology, sequence of genomes, the data is enormous. So then is the need for computer programs to search though the data and find interesting patterns.
“The main question I look at is the genome. You can think of a genome as a very big sequence of DNA letters, think of it as a very big word, one word of three billion letters.”
Nakhleh explained that each living thing has a “word” and that within that word there are stretches of letters that are similar in some ways that can shed light on genetic histories and links between species. The methods and computer tools he is developing are designed to isolate data that can unravel genetic mysteries ancient and new.
Although he is now a forerunner in his field, Nakhleh described his profession as an unlikely fit. “When I was growing up in school I hated biology. I find it ironic I ended up actually loving biology. Part of the reason now, as I look back, I was very poor at subject work memorization.
“Rather, I always liked to reinvent the answer on the fly if you will. The way biology was taught to us was by memorization so I always struggled. Every time I had a bio exam it was a nightmare. Every time I had a physics exam I did very well, I need to think.”
A professor Nakhleh met in graduate school inspired him to look at biology in a different light. “I became aware of computational genetics,” he said. “It has a very nice mathematical foundation and I started seeing the logic of how DNA changes from one generation to the next. The more I learned, the more I understood, the more I started liking biology.”
Because of the potential of important discoveries, Nakhleh emplored, “I would like the Houston area and Texas to be supporting of research in evolution. At the end of the day, one of the most famous quotes is ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’
“If we want to understand disease or the potential of bacteria for use in energy sources, we have to do research into evolution. We’re doing great work, I’m proud of the research going on here.”
For more information about Nakhleh's research, visit http://bioinfo.cs.rice.edu/.
Name: Dr. Luay Nakhleh
Occupation: Associate Professor of Computer Science at Rice University
Fast Fact: Dr. Luay Nakhleh has been awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship grant in the area of organismic biology and ecology.
Julia Bishop Beautie is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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