Thanks to a UR connection and an uncommon combination of majors, Emily Nelson, ’12, spent her summer in a computational biology summer research program at Princeton University, studying genome variations from around the world.

Nelson is a computer science and biochemistry double major—the same major combination that made alumna Olga Troyanskaya, now a professor at Princeton, so successful when she attended UR in the 1990s. Nelson’s computer science advisor, Barry Lawson, introduced her to Troyanskaya last year at the HHMI Science Symposium, where Troyanskaya was a guest speaker.

“I was often compared to a former UR student—who was actually Dr. Olga—for our similar interest in computer science and biochemistry,” Nelson said. “When she came by and saw my presentation [last year] at the symposium, she urged me to apply for the research internship at Princeton.”

Over the summer, Nelson interned at Princeton’s Integrative Genomics Center. She focused on the zinc finger, which is a domain in a protein that forms a helix of amino acids that can bind to DNA. In her research, she looked at mutation in these domains using an online database called the 1,000 Genomes Project. The project compiles information on the DNA of healthy people of different ethnicities from around the world to look at how their genomes vary.

“Zinc fingers regulate what is being expressed, she said, “and if we can understand how they are working, it would be a potential insight into a lot of diseases that are caused by issues with regulation of pathways.”

Every day, Nelson and her lab mates would talk about each of their research projects and their progress. By the end of the internship, Nelson’s results weren’t what she was expecting.

“We thought we would see very low variations but the analysis showed a small percentage of zinc fingers highly mutated in regions critical to the function of the protein,” said Nelson. “The data suggested that small variations in zinc fingers could produce large biochemical and functional changes in the cell.”

Nelson’s father was a computer science major in college but Nelson said she never considered majoring in computer science until a course in high school changed her mind.

“I had a lot of experience with computers, separating parts and messing around, but I never considered studying computer science in college,” she said. “Then I was able to take an online AP course in high school and I really loved it.”

Her interest in biochemistry and a little advice from her father helped Nelson pair the computer science major with a second major in biochemistry, allowing her to experience a greater variety of coursework.

“My dad saw me becoming a programmer,” she said. “He suggested that I also study something in the physical sciences so that I can fall back on it if I don’t want to be a programmer for the rest of my life.”

Nelson chose biochemistry because she says it’s like “focusing on the interface of chemistry and proteins, and this fascinates me.”

The combined course load means her curriculum is heavy on the sciences but Nelson says her classes are different enough to keep her interested. 

After college, Nelson hopes to attend graduate school and continue studying computational biology. She thinks that perhaps she’ll become a teacher later in life.

“I really enjoy teaching and I have been a teaching assistant at UR for several years,” said Nelson. “I came from a very small rural school where we didn’t have a lot of opportunities. The idea of giving back to children who are in the same situation is what inspires me to become a teacher.”