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A Boost to a Young Scientist’s Career

March 1, 2006

A Boost to a Young Scientist’s Career

Computational biologist named Sloan Fellow

By Eva Emerson
March 2006

USC College computational biologist Xianghong Jasmine Zhou has been named a 2006 Sloan Research Fellow.

Established in 1955 by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sloan Fellowships provide early-career scientists and scholars the support and recognition necessary to establish independent research programs and jumpstart their careers.

Zhou is among 116 researchers chosen to receive one of this year’s prestigious fellowships, which include a two-year, $45,000 unrestricted grant. Fellows, chosen from a field of 500 nominees, are free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry they find most compelling. Evidence of independent creativity in research is one of the most important considerations in the selection of the awardees, according to the foundation.

“For the last five years, the College has recruited more junior faculty than senior faculty,” said Joseph Aoun, dean of USC College. “Our goal has been to nurture these future leaders and provide them with an environment that will allow them to succeed. Jasmine is a rising leader in the field of computational biology, and it is wonderful that she has been recognized for her outstanding scholarship.”

“Jasmine is the latest in a long line of recent Sloan recipients at USC College,” said Wayne Raskind, dean of faculty in the College. “We are very proud and wish her continued success.”

Zhou’s award marks the ninth fellowship received by a College math or biology faculty member in the last seven years. In 2005, awardees were evolutionary geneticist Jeff Wall and mathematician Tobias Ekholm.

“With this unrestricted grant, I plan to explore new directions in my research,” said Zhou, an assistant professor in the molecular and computational biology section of biological sciences.

Currently, Zhou leads a number of projects in bioinformatics and genomics, including the development of new data mining tools and software that could lead to insights into the aging process and the origins of cancer and other complex diseases.

Zhou studies integrative genomics — the use of bioinformatics to integrate the enormous amount of genomic data produced by lab scientists. Results of genetic and genomic experiments can be difficult to directly compare even when the same kind experimental platform has been used. Zhou recently unveiled a new software program, called iArray, that allows biomedical researchers to do integrative analyses of microarray gene expression data generated by different platforms and different research groups.

Zhou plans to use iArray and similar tools in her own work predicting the functions of genes, including the many thousands sequenced in the Human Genome Project but otherwise uncharacterized.

“We may have the sequence [of all human genes], but it will still take an enormous amount of experimental effort to study what the genes actually do in the cell. We think using computational predictions will help speed up the process,” she said.

Her other major project is an attempt to reconstruct the network of genes that regulate the cell and its activities. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology last year, she and her colleagues proposed a novel approach to the problem.

Zhou received an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Tuebingen in Germany in 1995. Subsequently, she earned a postgraduate degree in computer science and a doctorate in bioinformatics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University before joining the USC faculty in 2003.

The Sloan Foundation selects awardees in the fields of chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience, physics and computational and evolutionary molecular biology. Zhou was one of the 12 scientists honored in the molecular biology category.