Ingenious, Innovative, and Interdisciplinary!
The 2008 Blavatnik Awards support the work of 16 outstanding young researchers as they summit their science careers.
To support junior scientists and engineers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut at the early stages of their careers is the driving idea behind the annual New York Academy of Sciences Blavatnik Awards. The competition, established by the Academy in 2007 thanks to the generosity of the Blavatnik Charitable Foundation, recognizes outstanding, innovative, and interdisciplinary research in the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering.
In the program's second year, the Blavatnik Awards committee paid special attention to the successive academic career steps of young researchers by considering nominees in two categories: faculty and postdoctoral.
To qualify for consideration in either category, all nominees had to have been born on or after January 1, 1966—an age limit of 42. Their work had to explore a subject within the life sciences, physical sciences, or engineering. And judgments about the excellence and impact of nominees' work were based on mentor recommendations and sample publications. The Academy required that submissions of postdoctoral applications come directly from the Dean at the nominee's institution.
Ultimately, 100 faculty and 50 postdoctoral applications from 28 institutions were considered. They represented a broad scientific spectrum of research topics, from evolutionary biology to electrical engineering. The Academy invited 52 distinguished scientists to review the applications. After much deliberation, they chose nine faculty scientists and seven postdoctoral fellows as finalists, citing the ingenuity and particular promise of their work. (To be sure, some finalists in the postdoctoral category moved this fall onto the next stage of their careers and now hold faculty positions.)
The Academy will bestow a $10,000 unrestricted grant upon each faculty finalist, and $5,000 upon each postdoctoral finalist. Ultimately, three of the faculty and two of the postdoctoral researchers, whom you will read about on the following pages, will be honored as Blavatnik Awards winners at the Academy's annual Science & the City Gala on November 17. Each will receive an additional $15,000 and $10,000, respectively. As you will see in the profiles that follow, those choices were not easy to make!
— Annika Keysers, Awards Coordinator
Alexei Aravin's interest in the natural world began with a child's fascination with animals and nature. Today, an investigator at the forefront of RNAi research, Aravin hikes and backpacks to get his nature fix. "I still contemplate the advantages of doing field research," he says, but concedes somewhat disappointedly that he can't do much of that in his current line of work.
In 2000, while a graduate student in Moscow, Aravin identified the first natural RNAi system and small RNAs that silence gene expression in germ cells of the fruit fly. MIT Center for Cancer Research Institute Professor Phillip Sharp writes of the breakthrough in a letter supporting Aravin for a Blavatnik Award, "This was the most interesting indication that RNAi processes are actively used by the cell to control gene expression." Sharp adds that this discovery "attracted enormous attention in the RNAi research community." Aravin says it was "exciting to be in at the very beginning" of this new frontier of biology.
Aravin's more recent studies, which combined biochemical, genetic, and bioinformatics approaches to reveal distinct small RNA pathways, led to the discovery in 2006 of a new class of small RNAs called Piwi-interacting (pi)RNAs. Sharp writes, "Discovery of piRNAs opened an entire new area in research. Before this discovery, scientists interested in mammalian systems concentrated on just one class of small RNAs, called microRNAs, but now there is an entirely new dimension to investigate."
Encouragement from his peers and a captivating research subject that compels him to continue are keys to Aravin's success. Greg Hannon has also been a powerful mentor, passing on life lessons Aravin says will carry him forward when he has his own laboratory. "He has taught me how to collaborate with people, how to treat them and really communicate with them."
The Hepatitis C virus (HCV) must both identify and gain access into the correct target cell in order to initiate infection. Matthew Evans is working to reveal the cellular mechanism that allows this process to occur. "Each cell in the body expresses different proteins. There may be specific proteins that are being expressed by hepatocytes that make them a suitable entry for HCV," he explains. Evans' recent identification of the tight junction protein Claudin-1 as an essential HCV entry factor "has transformed the HCV field," according to a letter of support for the Blavatnik Award from Charles Rice, who heads the virology and infectious disease laboratory at the Rockefeller University in New York.
Evans recognized during the course of his research that, although some HCV cellular receptors had been identified, "we didn't know the entire story. We have been working to identify the remaining factors missing in the equation. Our next step will be to find out what happens once the virus interacts with those factors."
One goal of Evans's research is to uncover new antiviral targets at the cell entry stage of HCV and ultimately of other viruses—effectively closing and locking the doorway they use. "Targeting such cellular mechanisms could be a strategy the viruses can't mutate around, making drug therapy more effective," he says.
The son of biochemists, Evans remembers tagging along to his father's lab on weekends where he would be set up with projects like dissolving and re-crystallizing salt. Growing up in this environment had a "massive impact" on Evans. He credits his parents and academic mentors Stephen Goff and Charlie Rice with showing him that the rewards of academic research are worth the requisite hard work.
Evans started his own laboratory this summer when he joined the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Department of Microbiology as an Assistant Professor.
Valerie Horsley's interest in biology was piqued at age 12 by an inspirational life sciences teacher. Today, Horsley uses the mammalian skin model to investigate how tissues form, maintain, and repair themselves and wants to discover what enables these processes to occur. Her work using mouse genetics, genomics, pharmacology, cell, and developmental biology has defined new features of skin stem cells during tissue development and homeostasis. Data collected through Horsley's experiments have already defined novel mechanisms that control the cell cycle, stem cell proliferation, and hair follicle growth. She has also identified unipotent progenitor cells that control the development of the sebaceous gland—the skin's oil-producing gland.
"Unlike most of our tissues, the hair follicle regenerates on its own. It dies and re-grows constantly," Horsley explains. "If we can understand how that's possible in the hair follicle, then maybe we can use these mechanisms in other tissues to enable them to regenerate." Horsley hopes that her work in stem cell biology may one day help people afflicted with degenerative diseases like muscular dystrophy, a disease in which muscle myofibers continuously degenerate and repair themselves. "With age, tissue regeneration gets harder because it's thought the stem cells can't keep up with a constant degeneration/regeneration cycle."
Horsley left her small home-town Alabama roots in pursuit of a teaching career in biology, but en route she decided to focus primarily on research because "that's where you get to answer questions." She is still interested in teaching and says that science makes her "willing to be adventurous." In addition to Horsley's promising work in developmental biology, she has taken on the challenges of parenthood and competitive swimming, and she is currently preparing to open her own laboratory.
Andrew Houck wants to build the first quantum computer. From an early age he took apart electronic devices and worked on brain-teaser puzzles for fun. He believed he would become a mathematician, but his true calling turned out to be quantum mechanical integrated circuits. He now studies electronics on a microscopic level.
Houck's postdoctoral research at Yale focused on developing fully quantum mechanical circuits, in which quantum mechanical microwave signals address quantum bits. This new technology could enable the testing of fundamental physics concepts all on a single chip in an integrated circuit. Houck has already developed a new type of quantum information bit called the transmon and coupled it to signals in an integrated circuit. His team, led by Rob Schoelkopf and Steve Girvin, used these quantum electromagnetic signals to convey quantum information between two distant qubits, an important building block for a quantum computer.
Houck, who joined the department of electrical engineering at Princeton University as an assistant professor in September, says, "We're beginning to see in lab, for the first time, results of simple textbook problems I used to work on in college." This is the first time they've been seen on the single particle level. In the last few decades scientists have been asking, 'How many fewer particles can we measure?' Now we want to turn it around and control just one photon. From there we will try to build up increasingly complicated devices, controlling each photon as we go."
Houck's main interest, the future quantum computer, will be able to solve complex problems in fewer steps than a classical computer, "but just how we will ultimately apply the technology is an open question," he says. "So far, very few algorithms have been developed for this powerful device that does not yet exist."
"Ferociously original, an autodidact extraordinaire, a careful and rigorous scholar, and an interactive and thoughtful colleague" is how Andreas Keller's mentor and 2007 Blavatnik Award recipient Leslie Vosshall describes him. Keller has earned this praise for his out-of-the-box approach to understanding the genetic basis of olfactory perception in fruit flies and, more recently, in humans.
Keller left Germany in 2002 to work in Vosshall's lab, where he designed a new behavior paradigm that used real-time video tracking of fruit flies to produce high-resolution behavioral data. He then studied how genetic manipulation impacted these behaviors. He became interested in the cognitive basis of olfactory coding and, together with Vosshall, launched the Rockefeller University Smell Study in 2004 to focus exclusively on humans.
"I'm interested in the genetic and psychological causes of the variability in how people perceive odor. You can smell something while the person next to you smells nothing, or the same aroma can smell appealing to one person and repugnant to another. This variability is much greater than in other senses such as sight and hearing," he says. Keller's studies on clinically healthy humans revealed for the first time that genetic variation in a human odorant receptor alters sensitivity to the odorous steroid androstadienone. Next, Keller plans to examine different human genetic predispositions that affect how smelled odors can act on measurements of stress or excitement. He notes that significant differences in odor perception have been found among humans who have psychotic diseases such as schizophrenia.
Keller is intensely interested in contributing to the understanding of human behavior—so much so that he is taking evening classes toward an MA in philosophy. "I'm trying to learn where philosophy and neuroscience intersect." Keller says he has "a creeping suspicion" that there will be questions that are difficult to answer using experiments alone.
Andrey Pisarev was born and raised in a small town in Siberia and went on to enter the country's top university, where he completed his PhD in biochemistry. Immediately afterward, he joined the laboratory of Tatyana Pestova at SUNY DMC in Brooklyn.
"Dr. Watson visited the chamber music concert during the last day of the conference. He was in a white suit. I'll remember it forever. He was one of the reasons I became a scientist."
— Andrey Pisarev
In his experiments, Pisarev uses 15 different individually purified and characterized proteins from cell lysates to reconstitute the process of translation in vitro. He explains: "This approach allows us to study the mechanism of the process step-by-step and to generate more profound explanations of the roles of different components in the process."
Pisarev's work has revealed the mechanisms of the last two stages of translation—termination and ribosomal recycling—which has filled a 30-year-old gap in the scientific community's understanding of protein synthesis in the human cell. He says this new knowledge "should ultimately aid in the development of medicines that target genetic diseases associated with the formation of short protein forms." More recently, Pisarev's research yielded the discovery of the protein Helicase DHX29, which participates in the synthesis of oncogenes and growth factors. He plans to continue studying this protein, believing it may lead to a cure for cancer.
Pisarev enjoys reading about and contemplating human complexity as illustrated throughout the works of Dostoevsky and Chekhov. And he likes to expand his horizons through world travel. "I'm especially interested in ancient civilizations," he says. "I just visited Egypt, and it was fantastic." Greece, Rome, and South America are next on his agenda.
In 2006 Pisarev had the opportunity to meet a life-long hero, Nobel Prize laureate James Watson, at a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory translation control conference. "Dr. Watson visited the chamber music concert during the last day of the conference. He was in a white suit. I'll remember it forever," Pisarev recalls. "He was one of the reasons I became a scientist."
Shobha Vasudevan remembers a childhood in which her mother, a botanist and chemist, and father, an engineer, were always talking science. Today, Vasudevan, who admits to being "fascinated by RNA," is at the forefront of molecular biological research, working to understand the different roles played by microRNAs in cell regulation.
In 1997, Vasudevan began her scientific career in microRNA decay as a graduate student in the laboratory of Professor Stuart Peltz at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In 2003, she was hired as a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Professor Joan Steitz at Yale and was subsequently awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the nonprofit Cancer Research Institute in New York.
She started looking at the translation of cytokines, trying to understand how their expression was regulated. "I accidentally discovered microRNAs had other roles than previously thought," she says. "MicroRNAs are traditionally believed to be repressive, but I showed that if cell conditions change, the microRNAs and their associated proteins become transformed into activators. This tells us that molecules we have already characterized may have other roles we hadn't given them credit for." These studies were published in Cell and Science in 2007.
Vasudevan's current research focuses on investigating deregulated expression of growth factors like cytokines, which contribute to the immunological basis of cancers and a wide range of inflammatory disorders.
Vasudevan hopes her study of microRNA functions in different cancer cell populations will translate to new therapeutic avenues. She says her research underscores a necessary paradigm shift in the way we think about microRNAs. "The cell is subjected to so many conditions in its life that molecules simply can't perform a single function; rather, they must switch between distinct functions to adapt to these conditions."
Daphne Bavelier's career in cognitive neuroscience began when she was admitted to the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Once there, she left the molecular biology track she had chosen as a teenager and designed her own curriculum in cognitive neuroscience, "a discipline that didn't officially exist in France at the time." She completed her PhD at MIT then went on to take a postdoctoral position at the Salk Institute.
Bavelier describes her studies using early functional MRI to image the brain in action as the "golden days when no one knew exactly how things worked. We were inventing as we went." Her work in this new frontier led her to focus on brain plasticity, the brain's capacity to learn and adapt to an ever-changing environment.
Her laboratory uses a multidisciplinary approach (behavior, brain imaging, and eye tracking) to study how individuals learn and adapt to new experience. Her research has focused on the case of individuals born deaf, and more recently on the case of video game players. "Video games are widely used by children and adults alike. Yet, their benefits to learning have not been fully evaluated. Playing certain types of video games induces a vast array of improvements in vision, decision making, and cognition that extend well beyond the specific tasks in the game," Bavelier explains. "A training regimen whose benefits are so broad is scientifically unprecedented."
Bavelier wants to understand how video games and, more generally, IT devices may be exploited to promote learning, and she is interested in how brain plasticity meshes with education, rehabilitation, and workforce training. "Not all brain functions and systems are equally affected by new experience. We need to define what can and cannot change, and under which circumstances transfer of learning from one skill to others may be induced."
Imagine a plastic soda cup that decomposes to CO2 and water if it is accidentally left in a field, or a plastic bag that, if it finds its way to the ocean, safely degrades before becoming a hazard to sea life. Such products and their manufacturing process are the foci of second-time Blavatnik Award finalist Geoff Coates' work.
"Most of the polymers used today by society last for hundreds or even thousands of years," he says. "For example, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is an area of ocean between California and Hawaii, roughly the size of Texas, where 6 billion pounds of floating plastic have accumulated over the last half-century." By contrast, Coates' polymers have "linkages in the backbone that can react with water and then break into smaller pieces that are easily biodegraded by commonly occurring environmental bacteria." So far these plastics have applications ranging from low-tech food packaging to high-tech electronics.
Moving away from oil as a primary feedstock for plastics manufacturing is another imperative, according to Coates. "In 20 years oil will be too expensive to use as feedstock for plastics in some applications," he says. This method of polymer production also generates about as much CO2 by weight as it does plastic. Coates is focusing on new ways to make plastics that use non-food feedstocks, such as cellulose-based chemicals and biomass-derived CO.
Coates has even pioneered the development of catalysts for the utilization of CO2 as a polymer feedstock. "CO2 is essentially free, and manufacturers can even be paid to use it," he says. Coates says the CO2 used to make these plastics might eventually come from sources like bio-refineries, power plants, or cement manufacturing facilities. "Making plastics out of CO2 won't cure global warming but it might be a small part of a much larger solution."
As a married couple who coincidentally were both selected as Blavatnik Awards finalists for independent, and quite different, work, Laura Landweber and Steven Gubser have a lengthy combined history of science fascination. Growing up in Princeton, Laura immersed herself in The Anatomy Coloring Book and biographies about female scientists like Barbara McClintock. As a boy in Aspen, Steve skied and read Isaac Asimov books. "I liked the one about black holes," he recalls. At age 17, Gubser won the International Physics Olympiad in Warsaw, Poland. "That was an intense experience. I decided then that I wanted to be a physicist."
Today marriage, children, and swing dancing—in addition to biology and physics—keep them busy as a couple. And it's no surprise that they're raising kids who share their curiosity. Their two daughters "enjoy watching movies of Oxytricha grazing on algae, like Pac-man. And they like mathematical shapes and patterns, like tilings of the Poincare disk. But a bigger treat than hearing about string theory is helping Daddy change a water filter," Landweber says.
In her lab, Landweber studies the interplay between molecular evolution and computation, focusing on the origin of novel genetic systems, particularly those in protists (microbial eukaryotes), including the scrambled genome of Oxytricha trifallax. By combining molecular, evolutionary, theoretical, and synthetic biology, Landweber and colleagues discovered an RNA-guided epigenetic mechanism underlying complex genome rearrangements, the transitional forms through which this process evolved and its intrinsic capacity for solving computational problems.
Landweber's lab succeeded in creating the first RNA computer, which charted the path towards molecular computers. Her group visualizes some natural biological systems as computational processes and has transformed the study of the origin of the genetic code into quantitative, rigorous hypothesis testing, disproving that it was ever a frozen accident. Landweber says success has come from choosing "challenging but tangible problems that no one else is working on," and she's "pretty motivated to work hard." It's clear she approaches her extracurricular life with as much zeal: the Landweber lab website includes links to her guide to buying chocolate in the Boston area and an exhaustive catalog of health information and shopping advice for parents-to-be.
Gubser works on connecting heavy-ion physics to string theory, which includes trying to understand the properties of a fluid called the quark-gluon plasma, a recently discovered state of matter. He explains: "It has low viscosity, but energetic particles can't get through it. Remarkably, black holes in five dimensions have similar dynamical properties. It seems like a wild idea to compare black holes in five dimensions to melting nuclei in four. But it works, at least qualitatively. The question is, 'To what extent does it work quantitatively?'"
Gubser is one of the founders of the gauge-string duality, which equates string theory in five dimensions to four-dimensional field theories similar to quantum chromodynamics. The connection with heavy-ion collisions is a welcome surprise. "The experimental discovery of the quark-gluon plasma and its surprising properties is one of the two biggest advances in nuclear and particle physics in a decade. I'm thrilled with how it ties in with string theory," he says. When asked what aspect of his research is most exciting, Gubser replies, "I voyage in thought from colliding nuclei to black hole horizons, and people take me seriously. I think that's pretty exciting."
As perplexing as the scientific problems they tackle are, Landweber and Gubser say they're also challenged by balancing their family's many scheduled activities, and finding the time to get enough sleep. They find it helpful to compare notes with each other on how they run their research groups. In what ways do their fields complement one another? Gubser observes, "As basic science goes, our fields are really pretty far apart, but we both look for common conceptual threads in diverse phenomena."
Christine Jacobs-Wagner's first passion was for competitive badminton, and she rose to play on a national team. But she also wanted to achieve "great things" in a profession that used her intellect. She considered many fields before settling on science and was soon "hooked."
Her work with bacteria has become an interest she hopes to pass along. "I feel I've done my job when I hear a young person say, 'Wow I didn't know bacteria were so cool!'" Indeed, Jacobs-Wagner is described as a "fantastic teacher—energetic, engaging, organized, and critical" by University of Texas Medical School Professor William Margolin in a letter of support for the Blavatnik Awards.
Jacobs-Wagner is working to learn how bacteria cells measure time and how they organize their intracellular space. "How do they know when to do things? It's hard to imagine how they can do this on the molecular level. They used to be thought of as bags of molecules floating around aimlessly, but in fact they are highly organized," she says. Her laboratory has unraveled how cell cycle regulators and structural proteins localize to a specific cell pole at defined times during the cell cycle. Another breakthrough was the discovery of the first bacterial intermediate filament protein, a type of skeleton. "It was thought this was only found in animal cells, so it was assumed this structure came late in evolution." This discovery has opened the door to using bacteria as a model for experiments that could impact humans. "Over 30 human diseases have been linked to malfunction of intermediate filaments," Jacobs-Wagner says, adding that most bacteria are beneficial.
Ever sportive, Jacobs-Wagner still plays soccer, bikes, and runs, but she says nothing is more fun than kite boarding with her husband.
Eric Lai brings an artist's mind for identifying and interpreting patterns to his science. A lifetime musician, Lai says, "Improbable as it might sound, reading a musical score is much like reading a genome. Although both are complex, they both use a limited alphabet and are organized via patterns and motifs. Amazingly, it turns out we can relate patterns in DNA and RNA sequence to morphological patterns in the whole animal."
"Reading a musical score is much like reading a genome. Although both are complex, they both use a limited alphabet and are organized via patterns and motifs. Amazingly, it turns out we can relate patterns in DNA and RNA sequence to morphological patterns in the whole animal."
— Eric Lai
As a developmental biologist, Lai is interested in "how to make an animal the same way each time. This requires that the right genes be active at the right times and in the right places." Small regulatory RNAs are an important aspect of how gene activity is controlled during development. Lai and his colleagues combine fruit fly genetics, computational biology, and biochemistry to study small RNAs, including microRNAs and siRNAs.
"By serendipity, the work I began in the early 1990s revealed that micro-RNA regulation helps make a normal fruit fly nervous system," he says. His continued research in this vein over the last 15 years has led him to make numerous contributions to the small RNA field. These include elucidating key principles for microRNA genefinding and targetfinding, discovering various classes of endogenous siRNAs, and demonstrating substantial roles for microRNAs in modulating signal transduction and neural development.
Lai notes that a better understanding of small RNA pathways and functions will help to interpret and treat human illness. "Many diseases and cancers are caused by malfunctioning gene products. In some cases this might be due to aberrant small RNA activity and in other cases to gene dysfunction that might be combated using designed small RNAs. Of course," Lai adds, "figuring these out will be major challenges for the future!"
Tom Muir grew up in a Scottish fishing village never imagining he would become an organic chemist. "I was gently blown in the right direction by teachers and university professors who knew better," he muses. It wasn't until Muir was a postdoc that the idea of using chemistry to study biological problems became exciting—"an epiphany that was 25 years in the making."
Today Muir works passionately on solving the puzzle of how proteins—which he describes as "among the most complex machines imaginable"—operate. His research uses organic chemistry as a tool to understand the "Byzantine relationships" between chemical groups within a protein that dictate the protein's unique three-dimensional shape and function. "This enables us to manipulate the protein in subtle and precise ways and to ask sophisticated questions about how it works and therefore how to fix it if it's malfunctioning."
Muir says his laboratory's greatest achievement thus far has been the development of an approach that enables the building and dissecting of protein molecules. The Muir Expressed Protein Ligation method allows recombinant polypeptides and synthetic polypeptides (or other artificial molecules) to be ligated together through a normal peptide bond. "This opens up the world of proteins to the tools of organic chemistry by allowing the insertion of unnatural amino acids, posttranslational modifications and isotopic probes site-specifically anywhere into proteins," Muir explains.
Muir's next major challenge will be to work on revealing the chemical underpinnings of the histone code, the indexing system cells are believed to instruct DNA which genes to turn off or on, depending on the cell's role in the body. "This is a fundamental part of biology, but also a key to fighting disease," he says. "Many cancers and viruses are thought to be connected to problems with this indexing system."
Scientists across the disciplines are collaborating to find new uses for integrated circuits like those found inside computers and cell phones. Ken Shepard explains that Moore's Law, the guiding principle that says integrated circuits can be made ever smaller, denser, cheaper, and faster, will reach its limit in the next five to ten years. Shepard is among the scientists who are responding to this otherwise dead end by developing nontraditional applications for traditional integrated circuit technology. "The term is functional diversification, but we also refer to it as 'more than Moore,'" he quips.
"The long-term goal will be to use integrated circuits as a new tool to reverse engineer the neural connections in a slice of brain tissue. We're asking what's connected to what in the neural network in order to understand neural structure and, ultimately, function."
— Ken Shepard
Shepard is currently working on biological applications. "Anywhere you have a glass slide, you can replace this with an integrated circuit chip that is capable of both sensing and actuation." One such application is microarrays, which have become a commonplace tool in genomics. The normally passive microarray substrate can be replaced with an active integrated circuit chip, negating the need for large and expensive external "readers."
In his laboratory at Columbia, Shepard is also using chips to interface with neurons. "The long-term goal will be to use integrated circuits as a new tool to reverse engineer the neural connections in a slice of brain tissue. We're asking what's connected to what in the neural network in order to understand neural structure and, ultimately, function." Shepard is energized by the "synergy of multiple disciplines" necessary to the success of this work and the unique capabilities of a university setting for this enterprise. "This is a realm that companies can't compete in," he says.
What's most exciting about his work? Shepard can't say because what's most exciting changes daily. He has lots of experimental balls in the air, and "results often come fast and furiously." He says he hopes to see his work lead to new, unthought-of markets for integrated circuit technology.
The power and beauty of concepts like Darwinian natural selection seduced Saeed Tavazoie away from his first-love field of physics to genomics and systems biology. He concentrated initially on computation as it applies to functional genomics and from there launched his experimental work in systems biology. He says his discoveries are "challenging the dominance of the century-old notion of homeostasis, and increasingly forcing us to view microbial behaviors from a cognitive perspective, much as we do for understanding animal behaviors."
Tavazoie now believes one of the most important objectives of humanity is to understand the relationship of organisms with respect to each other and their origins. His research strives to do this through the development of experimental and computational methods that both generate and utilize high-dimensional genomic and phenotypic observations. Tavazoie believes that understanding gene regulatory dynamics at this level is "an essential step in determining how existing genetic variation and somatic mutations contribute to human disease."
Technological advances, such as those that enable the measurement of tens of thousands of genes simultaneously, have revolutionized ways of observing how biological systems behave, according to Tavazoie. "These new tools require new methods of analysis, new ways of thinking about how we convert this huge amount of data we have into an understanding of how the systems work."
Tavazoie says that biology thus far has been about the process of thoroughly describing organisms by breaking them down to their individual components and characterizing them in high detail. But it's the interaction of these components in the context of their systems that captivates him. "My scientific career has been shaped by the expectation that there are undiscovered organizing principles that lie behind how we understand nature and biological systems. My goal is to find those things. That's what drives my research," he says.