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Dr. Sarah Wheelan: ‘I always wanted to be a writer’

posted Oct 8, 2010, 6:44 AM by AWM Editor

2010 AWM Essay Contest: 
High School Level
Honorable Mention

by Kelly Barbara Buckley

    To Sarah J. Wheelan, MD, PhD, math is not dry numbers on a page; it is a way of modeling and understanding the world.  Dr. Wheelan merges the fields of mathematics, computer science, statistics, and biology and adds knowledge she has derived from creating sculptures and reading about particle physics.  She is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Oncology Biostatistics, one of the founding principal investigators for the Center for Computational Genomics, and a co-director of the Next Generation Sequencing Center at Johns Hopkins.  Dr. Wheelan’s interdisciplinary approach to research and her wide range of interests allow her to make connections that others would not.  As Dr. Sean R. Eddy states, “Progress is driven by new scientific questions, which demand new ways of thinking. You want to go where a question takes you, not where your training left you.”(1)

     Interestingly, Dr. Wheelan had planned to be an English major, “move to the mountains in a little house, and write.”  Her father was a journalist with the Associated Press and is currently working on his fifth book.  Her grandmother is a political columnist.  Two significant things happened when Dr. Wheelan was in ninth grade that changed her life plan:  her mother earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, which was very inspiring to her teenage daughter, and Dr. Wheelan took her first biology class.

    Dr. Wheelan’s biology teacher in ninth grade was a botanist, who described everything in such detail that “it was clear he really enjoyed what he was doing.”  This was the first time she thought she might do something other than be a writer.  She also had an incredible math teacher who showed the students a computer program he wrote to plot out fractals.  Dr. Wheelan says of the program, “it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen.”  Soon, she was thinking about how a coastline “has infinite lengths it you measure it closely enough, and how similar snowflakes are.” It boggled her mind “how everything came together – the patterns in math were the same as the patterns in biology.”  Dr. Wheelan was also in the science Olympiad and she won a couple of medals in the national competition.

    In college at the University of Colorado, Dr. Wheelan took a lot of biology and math courses.  Again, a professor who loved plants and hiking engaged Dr. Wheelan’s mind; they discussed “huge ideas and how computing relates to everything.”  Dr. Wheelan’s senior thesis described mathematical modeling of biological systems.  She had seen a paper in Scientific American describing the different petal and sepal patterns in arabidopsis, a small flower, and she figured one could fit the patterns into a boolean network.  She also saw that there should have been one more state of that network that had not been discovered previously.  Her interdisciplinary approach and in-depth understanding of both math and biology allowed her to make this exciting discovery.      

    During graduate and medical school, Dr. Wheelan realized she didn’t really like working in a lab.  “I like to use my hands,” she says, “but doing things with little amounts of clear liquids all day wasn’t for me.”  The doctor running the M.D./Ph.D. program knew that Dr. Wheelan liked math and suggested that she go into bioinformatics.  She learned programming and “everything just fell into place.”  She feels very fortunate to have had such attentive and creative mentors, “people who already did multi-disciplinary things. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known (bioinformatics) existed.”

     Dr. Wheelan’s work involves using algorithms to approach very “large-scale” biological problems.  She sequences data where there are “many, many human genomes” to compare to each other and to identify variations.  One needs not only statistics and programming, but also biology “so when there is a variation you have some idea of what it means.”  Of her work towards finding the cause of various cancers, she says she “never thought that what I do would even be possible.”  Indeed, there may be a dozen bioinformatics centers, but the group at Johns Hopkins is at the forefront of interdisciplinary investigations focusing on education, not just research collaboration. 

     Although she loves her job at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Wheelan also enjoys art and working with her hands, including sculpting and baking.  Her specialty is theme-based cakes.  Not long ago, she spent two days working on a bee-theme cake!  In addition, she likes training her two dogs and reading, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, or particle physics.   Reading and art, in addition to Dr. Wheelan’s academic knowledge, help her find connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.  Teaching and tutoring also have been extremely rewarding, and Dr. Wheelan reports that some of her best ideas have come from questions her students have asked.  Her advice to students interested in a career in the mathematical sciences is to “do it because you’re interested in it, not because you think it will be a good job.”

     The diversity of Dr. Wheelan’s personal life, from reading about quarks and baking cakes, is matched by the diversity in her professional life.  At the Center for Computational Genomics, Dr. Wheelan has attracted collaborators from all around the world.  Her job is at the forefront of technology, merging her dual love of math and biology with cutting-edge research.  “Math is challenging and it can be extremely rewarding, but you really have to like it.”  Math is used everywhere and sometimes for extremely sophisticated applications, such as materials design. “Its not like if you’re a mathematician you sit in a corner with a pencil the rest of your life!” Dr. Sarah Wheelan is an outstanding example of how today’s scientist really needs to be fluent in several disciplines and, although her writing now is in the programming languages R or Python, Dr. Wheelan did follow her dream of being a writer – a writer who is working towards the cure for cancer.

(1) Eddy SR (2005) “Antedisciplinary” science. PLoS Computational Biology 1(1): e6.

About student:

I graduated from the Key School in Annapolis, MD in June 2010.  I will be attending Brown University in the fall and plan on majoring in computer science and economics.  During the summer of 2009, I worked as a biostatistician at Johns Hopkins.  I have never taken any computer science courses, but I taught myself enough R and Python that I was able to contribute original findings by writing computer programs to analyze DNA for cancer research.  I met Dr. Sarah Wheelan, my interviewee, at Johns Hopkins.  I continued my work at Hopkins from January to May, 2010 as an independent study.



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