For Brian Sorace, ’11, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Symposium on Sept. 10 marked the culmination of 10 weeks of research and preparation.  

The biology major spent his summer on campus, researching the affect heat shock proteins have on the symptoms of Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD) in fruit flies.

“Fly cells are a lot like ours,” Sorace said. “So we can draw a lot of comparisons in the way that MJD is expressed and reacts to the heat shock proteins. The data is very valid.”

Sorace was just one of 75 students presenting their posters at the symposium. All students whose research has been funded by HHMI, in addition to students funded through other means, participate in the event.

The evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. Olga Troyanskaya, ’99, knows well what the presenters go through as they prepare to present their work. As a University of Richmond undergraduate she completed research with both professors in the biology and computer science departments.

Her talk focused on the need for biologists to integrate computer science into their research, particularly when it comes to disease. She came to understand the value of merging the two fields here at Richmond.

“I created a project that was at the intersection of computer science and biology, which is what I was really interested in,” she said. “I think it was really unique that Jeff and Lewis let me come up with a project to connect the two fields. They were willing to put their time and energy into mentoring this project that wasn’t really at the center of their research expertise.”

And 11 years after graduating, Troyanskaya’s interest in computer science and biology has taken her far. She earned her doctorate from Stanford University in biomedical informatics and is now an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Lewis-Sigler institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.

“My lab is focused on functional genomics. We develop ways for biologists to look across many data sets and makes sense of multitudes of data in the context of specific disease pathways. One of the systems we’re developing is essentially a Google for biology.”

Troyanskaya credits the university’s dedication to undergraduate research with leading her down her current career path.

“It was an incredible experience. I was able to formulate a question, go through the research and really think about these problems on a level that I never would have been able to do in class. It prepared me for graduate school and showed me what a future in research would be like.”

Watch Dr. Olga Toryanskaya's Lecture, "Finding a needle in haystack: How computers can help cure cancer," on Youtube.