Alumnus Applies Bioinformatics to Breast Cancer Research
Lukas Simon ’11 was known on the University of St. Thomas campus as a star goalie for the men’s soccer team. Now, after earning a bachelor’s in bioinformatics from UST, he is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.
Through classes in bioinformatics—a fast-growing and newly emerged field in the life sciences—UST students study biology, mathematics and computer science. For Simon, it’s an intriguing, challenging field that brings sciences together: “It’s a little bit like a Sudoku game with biology.”
Real-World Applications of Bioinformatics
At BCM, Simon is working on statistical analysis of genomics for a breast cancer project, focusing on research to identify possible therapeutic targets.
The project involves lots of computations that require both an understanding of biology and programming. He works in a lab with servers and supercomputers, writing code that will statistically analyze genetic data. With a sample of 20 gigabytes of raw letters or sequences, a study of 100 people could be 2 terabytes of data.
“Any bioinformatics program needs many parameters to run,” Simon said. “It takes an understanding of biology and statistics to set the parameters so that you get the right outcome.”
See Simon describe his work in the Bioinformatics Video
When he first started, he wondered why a computer would have to run for hours. Now it’s common practice to start a calculation that runs over a weekend or takes two weeks.
While waiting for a program to run, he spends time writing grad student papers, doing presentations and debugging code. He also works on his thesis about multi-omic data integration, meaning lots of different types of genetic data.
“It makes me feel good,” he said. “At the end of the day, after I spent a lot of time in front of the computer, in the lab, I have done something that may help others in the future.”
Small Classes Made a Difference for International Student
Simon is from Germany and moved to Houston in 2007, when he was 20. He lived on campus and joined the inaugural soccer team.
“It was a new family straight away—small classes, a familial atmosphere,” he said.
Simon said he developed a great relationship with the professors, who motivated him and were willing to help him get started in his field.
“You get to know them and why they like science,” he said. “You get to understand why science is interesting, the personal side of science.”
Bioinformatics is a High-Demand Field
For all his life, Simon played soccer, and he identified himself as a soccer player.
“When I thought I could do a Ph.D. in bioinformatics, I thought maybe I spent too much time playing soccer,” Simon said. “If a soccer player like me can do that course, anyone can do it.”
In this time of big data, where employers in many different fields are looking for candidates with quantitative analytical skills, Simon knows he won’t have trouble finding a job after graduation. And he says prospective students shouldn’t be intimidated by the field of bioinformatics.
“If you really want to learn, you learn every day and improve,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated by these long fancy words. In the end, bioinformatics is something you can learn and enjoy.”