"In order to accomplish anything today, you must work with others who don't have the background that you have. You have to be able to complement each other's strengths and weaknesses."

Brian R. King, assistant professor of computer science, is part of the growing field of data miners - computer scientists who develop tools to effectively and efficiently sift through vast amounts of data to find meaningful patterns in a multitude of disciplines. Data mining has applications in many fields, including health care, marketing, security, automated news classification and meteorology, to name a few.

King specializes in bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field between computer science and biology. He works to extract useful information from large databases of biological sequence data, with the hope that such information will aid the biological and biomedical research community. He works mostly with protein and gene sequences.

Databases around the world are full of such sequences, but little is known about what any of it means. How can we tell if a given protein is meant to live inside the cell or if is it to be secreted, where it may make an ideal drug target to treat disease? How do we know if its job is to repair damaged DNA or assist in processing carbohydrates? The laboratory work to answer questions about protein function, localization or other characteristics is too time-consuming and expensive to carry out for every single protein out of the potential millions that exist. As a data miner, King has a faster approach.

He writes computer algorithms that examine the sequences of proteins with known characteristics and extract meaningful patterns that can then predict the features of a new protein. The secret is to write algorithms that can do this efficiently on enormous datasets. King's algorithms can handle tens of thousands of sequences or more.

Before returning to school for his doctorate, King worked as a senior software engineer developing instruments to monitor air pollution. "Right from my first job experience I learned about interdisciplinary work," King says. "I was put on a team with an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a mechanical designer. I enjoyed how we worked together to build our instruments. We could not complete what we did without willingly and actively sharing knowledge. I have the same satisfaction from bioinformatics."

One of his goals as a teacher is to inspire students to reach outside their own disciplines. "In order to accomplish anything today, you must work with others who don't have the background that you have," he says. "You have to be able to complement each other's strengths and weaknesses."

Posted Sept. 27, 2010

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