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You can hear the smile in Raluca Gordân's voice when she talks about her research.
"I just love it really," said the Assistant Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and Computer Science, who is jointly appointed in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics.
The 2009 recipient of a computer science doctorate from Duke returned to the university in September 2011 as faculty after completing postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School. She notes she has Alex Hartemink - the Alexander F. Hehmeyer associate professor of computer science, statistical science and biology at Duke - to thank for her research path and for her decision to work in academia.
Gordân is studying the interaction between proteins and DNA and how mutations in the protein or DNA affect cells.
"I'm looking at these proteins called transcription factors," she explained. "What they do generally is bind to specific short DNA sites in the neighborhood of genes."
The proteins help tell cells which genes to use at a particular point.
"Although all the cells in an individual have the same set of genes, they don't look the same or have the same function," she said. "The way they use this information is different."
Gordân began working on such problems as a graduate student under Hartemink's supervision. The native of Romania applied to Duke based on his research. At the time, she thought she might want to apply machine learning to biological systems.
"One of the projects in his group was to learn the DNA motifs, the patterns that particular proteins like to bind, and I just found that to be a very interesting problem," she said.
She continues to work on similar types of problems now, choosing to return to Duke because of the opportunity to do both computational and experimental biology.
"When I was doing my postdoc, I started doing experimental work," Gordân said, "and I found it really fascinating how knowing the kinds of computational analyses you want to do can help with the design of the experiment."
She also was looking for a workplace with a collaborative environment, which she knew existed at Duke from her time here as a graduate student.
"From the first semester I realized here I would have a lot of independence and people were very supportive," she said, recalling her decision to leave Romania. "I felt like I could really be creative in this kind of environment. I found that the professors were much closer to the students, and they're much easier to talk to. Professors wouldn't try so much to impose their own ideas but to give you the freedom to think, especially Alex; I worked with him more closely. I knew it would take time to get used to being away from home, but I thought it would be worth it, and it was."
She noted the three computer science courses that were most important in helping her define her research interest and in helping her perform her research today: machine learning with Professor Ron Parr; algorithms with Professor Herbert Edelsbrunner; and introduction to computational biology with Professor Kamesh Munagala.
In addition to her research now, she has been teaching guest lectures and PERL tutorials, mostly for people with a biological background. She looks forward to teaching on a regular basis at Duke.
"That's also something I have to thank Alex for," Gordân said, noting she had the opportunity to work as a teacher's assistant and to co-teach a course with him. She found she really enjoyed teaching. "With some practice, I know I can be really good at it."