National Science Foundation to support student's research in Taiwan

Presidential Fellow, Oberlin graduate, and the author of software designed to calculate nucleotide diversity from new DNA data formats, Chase W. Nelson is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants: the coveted Graduate Research Fellowship and an East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Award, which will allow him to pursue bioinformatics research at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan this summer.

We met up with Chase to congratulate him, and to ask him a few questions about his research and how he spends his free time in Columbia.

Q: Most scientists do the bulk of their work in the lab, but much of your research is done from a computer. Tell us a little about the process. 

A: The goal of my research is to detect natural selection at the molecular level. When it comes to DNA sequences, there are plenty of data, but we lack a sufficient computational workforce for processing the data. That’s where I and others studying bioinformatics come in. Using computational systems, I try to find out what the data mean. Right now, I am working on several hundred malaria parasite sequences to find out which ones are mutating to evade our immune systems. We’re also exploring ways to incorporate geographic information systems for analyzing genetic data. The geography department at USC is a tremendous resource.  

Q: You are working on a Ph.D. in molecular evolution. Why did you choose USC for graduate school?

 A: My advisor. And the Presidential Fellows Program. I asked myself, which potential advisor has written the papers I wish I had written? The answer was of course Austin L. Hughes.  He is one only a handful of people in the world who have pioneered methods for detecting natural selection at the DNA level, and the breadth of his published work is really staggering.

Q: What do you think is a misconception people have about scientists?

A: Scientists understand very little compared to what the public thinks. Every time we answer a question, ten new ones are raised. For instance, we have determined that at least 80 percent of our DNA is biochemically active. But we don’t know what it does—we don’t know its biological function. Science has only broadened our appreciation for the mysterious.

Q: You have starred in various musicals, and you recently won a spot as a main stage performer at the SC Pride Festival for your first place finish in the Pride Talent competition! Tell us about your interest in the arts, and your perspective on Columbia.

A: Columbia is a haven for liberal thought and the arts, and a great and welcoming place. I’ve been honored to be involved at Trustus Theatre, where my latest role was Henry in Next to Normal. It is difficult to express how much I learned from each individual who worked on that production. Since coming here, I’ve also volunteered a lot with SC Pride to raise awareness of the roles that sex and gender play in our lives, and the discrimination that exists against the LGBTQ community. Performing on the same stage as Sheena Easton was truly thrilling.

I have always been interested in both science and music. Although it can sometimes be misapplied, science can be an amazing way to test certain ideas objectively. I also love music and how it facilitates human connection. Music often seems the only adequate way to express my perspective on life. C.S. Lewis once said that it, more than any other thing in this life, intimates the eternal. I don’t have a theoretical drive to understand music scientifically, but it does enhance my work by broadening my perspective on the human experience. The balance keeps me sane.

See Chase's most recent article, "Biosemiotic entropy of the genome: mutations and epigenetic imbalances resulting in cancer," here