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Coding the Future of Medicine in the Data Science Summer Experience

by Paige Dormann Apr 5, 2023
MACS Data Science Summer Research Experience

Hundreds of lines of code crammed computer screens in Dooling 223. One of the codes crashed, and students flocked to assess why it had broken. 

They were calm, appearing confident in their abilities to find a solution. After all, it was just one of many problems they’d successfully tackled during the summer. As participants in the Math and Computer Science Data Science Summer Research Experience, they’d become masters in collaboration. 

“Everyone is an expert in their own thing, from homology to coding and more,” said participant Harkiran Bhullar ’24, a business management and computer science dual major.

During the eight-week program, five students spent eight hours each day participating in cutting-edge research in partnership with McCall Laboratory at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. 

“I have known Jordan McCall since childhood,” said Carl Hammarsten, Ph.D., assistant professor. “Our research collaboration naturally formed as we both progressed in our academic careers and realized we had developed complementary skills.” 

According to Hammarsten, participants in the research experience take the research data provided by McCall Laboratory and develop the mathematical processes necessary to effectively analyze the results of their experiments. 

Their goal? To develop and implement an algorithm that can accurately predict the behavioral state of a mouse. The research could potentially be used to improve the efficacy of drugs prescribed to treat pain. 

“It’s good for students to gain exposure to the thought process of coming at a problem that no one has really tried to tackle. You don’t know what the answer is going to look like, and you don’t even know if you’re asking the question correctly.”

 Carl Hammarsten, Ph.D., assistant professor

Hammarsten—one of three faculty mentors for the Summer Research Experience—oversees the program’s progress and ensures that students get the results they need. Other mentors include Pranshu Gupta, Ph.D., program director, graduate computer science programs, and Kathleen Ryan, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics. The Center for Data Analytics, the academic affairs office, and Women for DeSales all provided funding and support for the experience. 

To be eligible, interested DeSales students within their first three years of study must demonstrate they are a good fit and that the experience will help connect them to their future career goals. Hammarsten and Ryan acknowledge that working with such high-caliber research can be daunting for students, especially those who are newer to the field. 

“When students enter the program for the first time, it’s good for them to be a little overwhelmed and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know anything,’” said Ryan. “Then in a few weeks, they become an expert. This helps them build confidence for when they have similar experiences in their future careers.”

Bhullar was intrigued by the opportunity to gain impressive real-world experience.

“When I was a kid, my family and I were given rides on a small four- or five-seater plane. Ever since then, I knew that I want to fly. My goal is to work for an aerospace company in a management role, which will require lots of experience like this [program],” said Bhullar.

Some of the skills Bhullar has honed include identifying errors in code, fixing them, and improving functionality. Beyond this, Bhullar gained confidence. “Now I can say, ‘I can do it without actually knowing how, and then figure it out.’” 

For Lucas Acosta-Morales ’23, the Summer Research Experience changed the trajectory of his future. When Acosta-Morales first participated in the program in the summer of 2021, he contemplated earning a Ph.D. in math. Now, he’s considering a master’s degree in software engineering.

“Last year, we wrote code from scratch. This year, we’re cleaning it up and fixing things,” said Acosta-Morales. “I think the coolest part is being able to use a lot of the skills I’ve learned in my classes and seeing how they’d be used in the real world.”

Ryan agrees that this is one of the program’s greatest advantages. “This is not a textbook experience. Employers want to see students work on something that doesn’t have an answer, a project where the solution isn’t in the back of a book. This exposes them to what problem-solving is like in the real world.”