Matthew Dapas, a second-year PhD student in the Northwestern University Driskill Graduate Program (DGP), studies bioinformatics under Ramana Davuluri, PhD, professor of Health & Biomedical Informatics in Preventive Medicine.
Dapas received his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and master’s degree in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. Prior to enrolling at Northwestern, he spent several years working as a technology consultant in pharmaceutical research and development.
Where is your hometown?
I grew up primarily in Batavia, Illinois, which is about an hour west of Chicago on the Fox River.
What are your research interests?
My research interests lie in the domain of computational genomics—searching for causal disease mechanisms through computational analysis of genomic data. Identifying genomic disease signatures can be extremely useful both in biological research, where results can help steer the focus of genetic studies, and in clinical applications, where genomic biomarkers can be used to personalize treatment. In oncology, for example, genetic tumor subtyping can lead to the development or application of molecularly targeted therapies, as well as provide more accurate prognoses for patients.
What exciting projects are you working on?
With Ramana Davuluri, I’m studying the correlation of gene isoform expression between a number of different platforms. An ongoing challenge in bioinformatics is accurately quantifying gene expression at the gene isoform level (most genes produce multiple mRNA variants, or isoforms), yet there is an incredible amount of information that is lost when isoform dynamics are aggregated to their respective genes as single data points. We are trying to improve upon current methods to include gene isoform expression data in the study of cancer genomics.
I’ve also been collaborating with Geoffrey Hayes, PhD, and Andrea Dunaif, MD, in their study of the genetics of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). They’ve managed to sequence the entire genomes of many families affected by the disease. This has enabled us to study with relatively great statistical power how certain rare genetic variants are associating with the disease. We hope our results will help uncover some of the involved hereditary mechanisms and ultimately teach us more about the molecular drivers of PCOS.
The knowledge that you’re the first person to see the inner workings of a protein that is essential for life as we know it is genuinely thrilling. I’ve been lucky enough in my research to have a couple of these experiences.
What attracted you to the PhD program?
I’m encouraged by the momentum that Northwestern has in research, as an institution and in my particular focus area. Biomedical informatics at Feinberg, although relatively small, is rapidly expanding and is very well positioned to grab and maintain a leadership role in the field. It’s exciting for me to feel like I’m a part of that explosive growth and I get the sense that long after I’m gone, research at Feinberg will only continue its upward trends in terms of impact and prestige. Being a Chicago native, as well, I’ve enjoyed getting to stick around for at least a few more years.
What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
I get paid to learn about things that I find incredibly interesting, and my research may one day help improve the lives of unlucky people who suffer from the diseases I am studying. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that.
What do you do in your free time?
I spend a lot of time in the gym or along the lakefront, depending on the time of year. As a lover of all things science, I also read a fair amount of nerdy books. On the weekends, however, I’m typically with friends, trying to have as much fun as my graduate student stipend will allow.
What are your plans for after graduation?
I want to continue driving innovation and discovery in computational genomics, but I’m not sure yet what that will look like, specifically, career-wise. I think I’d like to live in another country for a while, too.