UCF Computer Scientist Helps Unlock Health Mysteries

July 9, 2012

Haiyan “Nancy” Hu, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida, uses her expertise in data mining and developing computer algorithms to help biologists solve human health problems.

As a recent recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award of $684,172, she will continue her research in bioinformatics and computational biology and help expand the field at UCF.

Hu’s algorithms are used to detect frequent patterns in massive networks of data. She applies this expertise to a biomedical field known as epigenetics, which studies how the proteins in human cells (phenotypes) change without affecting the underlying DNA (in other words, environmental changes to a cell).

Biologists who study epigenetics have created a wealth of data, but the field currently lacks an efficient way to mine and analyze the data, according to Hu. Her NSF CAREER work will seek to develop computer tools and algorithms to help biologists and geneticists unlock some mysteries of human health.

For example, Hu’s computer algorithms might lead to a better understanding of how cardiovascular disease in adults can be linked to environmental and behavioral factors from childhood. Her work may help medical researchers discover why one biological twin develops cancer later in life but the other twin, who has the same DNA, does not.

The bioinformatics field is young, with rapid technological advancements occurring in just the past 15-20 years. This reality has created a situation ripe with opportunity for computer-savvy students.

“The time is now for bioinformatics,” Hu said. “Many opportunities exist for computer scientists. Biologists can no longer do their work without computer science.”

She hopes to develop a Bioinformatics 101 course at UCF, which would introduce undergraduate computer science students to the basics of analyzing data to solve biological problems. The course would also serve as a way to inspire more graduate students to pursue bioinformatics research.

But computer science students are hesitant about bioinformatics, Hu said, because they worry they don’t have enough knowledge of biology.

“You don’t need to know biology when you begin to study bioinformatics,” she explained. “It’s actually simple. Everybody’s DNA is basically the repeating of four chemicals, or nucleotides, that are represented by letters. They repeat and change order, like a book.”

The four chemicals are called bases, and are abbreviated A, T, C and G. The letters are repeated millions or billions of times throughout a genome. The human genome, which contains more than 20,000 genes, has 3 billion pairs of bases. “The computer algorithms find the patterns, and perhaps the anomalies, in the sequencing to solve or explain health problems,” Hu said.

Hu joined the faculty of UCF’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) in 2008. She received her Ph.D. in computer science and computational biology from the University of Southern California, and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Washington.

“The NSF CAREER Award is an important achievement for Dr. Hu and a great honor for our college,” said Gary Leavens, chair of the Computer Science division within EECS. “This support will play an important role in the expansion of bioinformatics at UCF.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

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