Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service
One week, 200 young researchers and more than 30 scientific luminaries: It was the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, an annual meeting of the minds in math and computer science where fledgling scientists can rub shoulders and share ideas with leading scientific thinkers. One of this year’s attendees was Sarah Hilton, who develops computer programs to model protein evolution. Hilton is a graduate student in the laboratory of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center virologist and computational biologist Dr. Jesse Bloom.
“More than anything else, it made me think of really broad topics for a week, and made me pull myself out of the rut of my own thinking and the technical details of my own research,” Hilton said.
Hilton was nominated by the University of Washington Genome Sciences Program to be one of the “young researchers” — undergraduate students, master’s and Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows — chosen to mingle with the “Laureates,” winners of top prizes in math and computing, including the Fields Medal, the Abel Award, the ACM Prize in Computing, and the ACM A.M. Turing Award. Attendees reached across disciplines to discuss past accomplishments and pressing future questions.
Building models to understand evolution
Hilton creates computer programs that model how viral genes — and the proteins they encode — have changed over evolutionary history. Although she works with specific viruses, she’s most interested in big-picture questions about how life evolved.
“The cool part about modeling is that we can take evolution — this complex process — and maybe not describe it perfectly, but we can describe it pretty well using these a few mathematical and statistical rules. It’s such a cool way to think about the world around you,” she said.
As a computer programmer and computational biologist, Hilton not only asks questions about evolution, but builds the tools that help her answer those questions. Because her labmates work with rapidly evolving viruses like influenza and HIV, she can build her models using their real-world data.
These data provide information about the different evolutionary forces that shape each gene, making it possible for Hilton to build models without assuming that every part of a protein evolves in a similar fashion. She is using these models to ask questions about which segments of viral proteins are targeted by the immune system and how long a virus has been circulating among people.
“In my lab, Sarah is really pushing the envelope on research at the interface of biology, statistics, and computation,” said Bloom, whose lab concentrates on the processes and consequences of viral evolution. “So it was great that she was able to attend a forum where she could meet leading grad students in fields such as math and computer science.”
‘Focusing on the why’
The five-day forum gave Hilton the opportunity to interact with early- and late-career researchers working on a wide range of topics in math and computer science. The conference mixed Laureate-led seminars with workshops and informal events during which scientists could reach across disciplines.
“Before I went, I hadn’t really thought about how diverse all of math and all of computer science is,” Hilton said.
Her interactions with other enthusiastic early career researchers was one of the highlights of the week.
“I really, really enjoyed talking to the other graduate students,” said Hilton. “We all have some semblance of a common vocabulary, but to explain your research to someone else you really have to work hard, and to understand other people’s research you also had to work hard.”
Instead of technical details, she said, “You ended up focusing on the why of your own research. … It’s a really great exercise for everyone.”