Pathways to the new biology: Tim Sears, 2012 summer student

Tim Sears, Summer StudentWithout a strong bioinformatics component, the Laboratory’s renowned Summer Student Program wouldn’t have appealed nearly as much to Tim Sears. A recent graduate of the Vermont Commons School, a small independent preparatory school with a strong ecological focus, Sears is a self-taught computer programmer whose other work includes helping automate Wikipedia’s vandal-detection efforts.

“We used basic AI (Artificial Intelligence) programming to automate the recognition of vandals’ edits and revert them back to the original text,” Sears says off-handedly. “It’s cut the hours needed for manual quality control by about half.”

At the Laboratory Sears has been working with Assistant Professor Matt Hibbs, Ph.D. Hibbs seeks to use existing data and AI to predict gene interactions involved with complex diseases and establish targets to test in animal models. In Sears’ opinion, the AI tools currently available for the work are not working well enough yet, and he’s interested in improving them. Perhaps.

“Biology is great, but it’s very frustrating!” he says. “It’s messy. My experience here has shown me that we still don’t know how complex diseases work on the molecular level. When we have enough data we’ll probably be able to figure it out, but we’re not there yet. We’re still early in the process of finding all the variables.”

With that statement, Sears succinctly underlines why talented people are needed from many disciplines to work in bioinformatics and why the effort continues to be so important. As for him, it’s possible that he will join the bioinformatics fray after college—he will matriculate at Cornell University this fall—but for the moment it’s one of several options.

“I’m leaning toward math and statistics in college,” he says. “Ultimately I want to work on complex problems with many variables. Maybe it will be in genomics, but I’m very interested in climate change and other fields as well.”

Wherever his journey takes him, one thing is clear: There will be a place for him in bioinformatics research if and when he decides to take that path.

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