Tyler Heist, ’15, became fascinated with symbiosis — the relationship between two kinds of living things that live together and depend on each other — in his high school AP biology class. Little did he know that he would soon be developing his own sort of symbiotic relationship between the disciplines of biology and computer science to answer larger questions about how organisms interact.
“My research looks at how certain organisms can live inside other organisms, and what sort of back talk needs to happen in order to let them peacefully co-exist and continue to function,” Heist says
Heist’s biology professor and research mentor, Malcolm Hill, explains that, “Tyler is looking at what genes are expressed differently when a cell is infected by an organism versus when a cell is healthy. Understanding how an organism tricks a cell into letting it live inside it is important to understanding disease.”
Rather than simply pursue his research question from a biological perspective, Heist chose to make his project data driven by incorporating computer science, using the programming language Python to help track differentiations in gene transcriptions. “Through the interdisciplinary IQS [Integrated Quantitative Science] course at Richmond, I figured out that computer science can be an interesting tool to help investigations in other sciences,” he says.
While Heist’s approach may not be unique, it is ambitious and creative. “I’m trying to find a way to integrate the two disciplines in a way that’s somewhat novel, but that can also lead to meaningful results,” he says.
Heist’s contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. “Tyler is at the forefront of using computer science skills to explore molecular genetic processes,” Hill says. “His perspective is different, and it’s been valuable in helping me create a well-rounded student research team.” Heist has also published his research in the scientific journal BMC Genomics and will present it at conferences this fall.
In March 2014 Heist was named a Goldwater Scholar, a national award designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. “The honor shows that through my education at Richmond and my research I’m on a good trajectory to contribute to the scientific community,” Heist says. “It was awesome to know that my work isn’t just known to me, but it’s also being recognized by other people.”
As for life after Richmond, Heist has his eye on graduate school, hopefully in an international program that will allow him to continue to merge computer science and biology. “I’m still interested in learning more about symbiosis,” he says, “but I’ve also realized there are related topics that tap into the same sorts of questions, such as immunology. I’ve got a lot of options.”