Tanya Cashorali, ’08, likes the excitement of being on the cutting edge of genetic research. The fourth-year student, who’s working toward a dual major in computer science and biology, is on co-op in the Informatics Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, where she’s researching the genetic causes of Huntington’s disease, autism, asthma, and brain cancer.
“I’ve gotten a chance to work with pioneers in the field, including the top researchers in the Harvard and MIT communities,” says Cashorali. “They were among the first to show that it’s possible to analyze whiteblood cells rather than brain samples to draw accurate conclusions on the genetic causes of Huntington’s disease.” She’s also been working on a project to identify the genes related to autism and asthma, using another novel technique that incorporates not only genetic data but also existing data from linkage peak analysis.
“Tanya has been working in this multidisciplinary area where computing meet genetics meets disease,” says Isaac Kohane, the director of the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program. “There are few talented individuals that have the training to be able to work at this intersection, and Tanya has a facility for understanding the biological concepts and the questions being asked. She also understands the software tools to the point where she can not only use them, but can improve them.”
It’s unusual for a student researcher to be working on two different projects, says Kohane, but few have Cashorali’s energy. She is currently writing two papers related to her genetic research.
“One of the best things I’ve learned from this co-op experience is how to go about conducting this research—how to think about problems and how to solve them,” she says. “Watching how these researchers think is very cool.”
Cashorali has also had an opportunity to attend important industry conferences. Kohane sent her to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, in July to attend a biomedical computing meeting on Huntington’s disease. Here, she presented a poster on the hospital’s work in this area, which is supported by the NIH, to the top principal investigators in biomedical computing.
Cashorali recently received a five-month research grant funded by Northeastern’s provost’s office and CCIS, which will enable her to continue her research at Children’s Hospital. Eventually, she plans to pursue a PhD in bioinformatics and integrative genomics, specializing in neuroscience and integrating genetics into health care.
“The best thing about the dual degree program is it allows you to combine interests,” Cashorali says. “There’s a ton of genetic and biological data out there to be analyzed, but people who are knowledgeable in the fields of both biology and computer science are very rare. Bioinformatics is an up-and-coming field and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”