Discovery on Display at Pair of
 Record-setting Research Days

By Roger AndersonApril 18, 2017

It’s true that we’re not all entirely human, says Elizabeth McNally, the Elizabeth J. Ward Professor of Genetic Medicine and director of the Center for Genetic Medicine.

Citing the groundbreaking 2016 study that showed inherited Neandertal DNA influences human disease risk today, McNally illustrated how much researchers still have yet to learn about the human genome.

“We are in the era of genetics and big data analysis,” McNally told an audience of more than 350 faculty, postdoctoral fellows, researchers, and students at the fourth annual Computational Research Day. “And although we can now sequence a whole genome for about $1,000, the big question as we think about diversity among humans is how much of the genome do we really want to sequence?”

McNally was one of two keynote speakers taking part in a full day of events held April 18 on the Evanston campus.

Earlier in the day, Desmond Patton of the Columbia School of Social Work discussed violence prevention and intervention strategies in the age of social media. Patton led a research team to develop a natural language processing system, using a small Twitter dataset from a deceased Chicago gang member, and integrated it with qualitative analysis and machine learning to identify gang-like behaviors online.

Diverse sessions throughout the event considered some of the computational investigations at the University, research that spans a vast array of domains, including astrophysics, materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering, business, political science, chemistry, and medicine.

“Northwestern IT is heavily involved in supporting hundreds of research projects on campus,” said Jackie Milhans, manager of computing and data support services. “We provide computational and storage resources, as well as in-person consultative support, workshops, and other trainings to build computational and programming skills in the research community.”

A poster competition sponsored by the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics and Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems featured entries from seven different schools at Northwestern. A panel of judges selected three grand-prize winners.

  • Third place: Jamilah Silver; Developing Stronger Constructs for Evaluation of Neighborhoods; School of Education and Social Policy
  • Second place: Yoojung Yoonie Joo; Phenome-wide Association Studies of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome; Feinberg School of Medicine
  • First place: Shannon Brady; Identification of Genetic Variation in Caenorhabditis Elegans Bleomycin Sensitivity; Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Lewis Landsberg Research Day

At the 13th Annual Lewis Landsberg Research Day, David Barefield, a postdoctoral fellow, presented on his work characterizing a novel protein and its role in arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy, or heart disease.

Barefield was one of more than one 400 presenters at the April 6 event held on the Chicago campus, and his research was awarded first place in the basic sciences category. He credited staff at the Center for Advanced Microscopy and Nikon Imaging Center and the Transgenic and Targeted Mutagenesis Laboratory for guiding him through the use of an electron microscope and for helping him to establish the mouse line he studied.

This year’s record-breaking participation showcased the diversity of innovative research taking place at Northwestern. The event included posters on basic science research, clinical research, public health and social sciences research, and education research.

“It’s an exciting time to be involved in research at the Feinberg School of Medicine,” says Rex Chisholm, vice dean of Scientific Affairs and Graduate Education. “Our community’s passion for research is on display today, and this is a much larger turnout than we’ve ever had before. We continue to expect to grow even more as we recruit more faculty.”

The day’s activities included a keynote lecture presented by Charles L. Sawyers, chair of the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Sawyers discussed acquired resistance to targeted therapies in cancer and guided the audience through an exploration of some of the models being developed in his lab to find answers.

“Genomic resistance mechanisms remain common, but I think their relative frequency is starting to decrease and the reason is because we are really good at designing the next generation inhibitors,” Sawyers said. “Non-genomic resistance mechanisms are emerging, and I’m optimistic they are druggable.”

Sarah Plumridge contributed to this report.

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