Student Essay Contest

Delving into Bioinformatics: Dr. Susan B. Davidson, Professor of Computer and Information Science

2004 AWM Essay Contest: 1st Place in the College Category

By Stefanie Coforio

Bioinformatics is a rapidly emerging field that brings together mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists, and researchers from other disciplines to analyze and manage biological and genomic data. Bioinformatics uses the information generated from experiments, like sequencing genomes, to facilitate the understanding of biological processes. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Center for Bioinformatics (PCBi) not only supports research, but also provides training and assistance with using bioinformatics tools. Dr. Susan Davidson, a Professor in the Computer and Information Science department at the University of Pennsylvania, has been an integral part of the formation and advancement of this Center. Her outreach to those interested in bioinformatics has helped create a support system not only at Penn but in the greater Philadelphia area.
In 1978, Dr. Davidson graduated with her bachelor’s in mathematics from Cornell University. During her upper level mathematics courses, she had become discouraged from pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics because of the abstractness of the concepts and the strange outburst of her topology professor, who one day suddenly barked out the window at a passing dog. As a visual person, she prefers indications that she is moving in the right direction; and computer science, providing a mathematical output, gave her just that. At the time, programming, theory of computation, and algorithms were emerging fields. Computer science offered a concrete, analytical focus to her interest in mathematics. During her studies at Cornell, she also took an Introduction to Computer Science course with her sister, who was majoring in biochemistry. A connection between the life sciences and computation transpired. She obtained her PhD in Computer Science from Princeton University in 1982 where she concentrated on distributed databases and developed strategies for data resolution using statistics, probability, mathematical modeling and analysis. Often data will conflict in a database, and Dr. Davidson created mechanisms to solve or avoid such conflict. These mechanisms can facilitate the use and maintenance of databases.
Dr. Davidson liked the idea of becoming a professor, a career in which she could set her own directions and be autonomous. Although she was advised that it would not be possible to go through the university tenure system and have a family, she interviewed at the University of Pennsylvania while pregnant with her first child for a one-year non-tenure appointment that could transition to a tenured position. This allowed her to establish herself in an area before she stood for tenure, which she soon achieved. One goal that she set at the beginning of her career she has since accomplished – obtaining an endowed chair. Dr. Davidson is the George Weiss Chair, the first woman in the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania to receive an endowed chair.
In the 1990’s, Dr. Davidson entered into the realm of bioinformatics. A student in one of her computer science courses was a visionary biologist at the Wistar Institute who saw a future in computational biology. He enticed Dr. Davidson to collaborate on the Chromosome 22 effort which was presenting interesting computational problems. Dr. Davidson had never taken a formal biology course but learned about the necessary foundational material by reading books and sitting in on courses. The bioinformatics project became a productive, well-funded research collaboration. The idea for a center based on databases was presented to the deans of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1996, an intra-school center was formed, and Dr. Davidson became one of the co-directors. Dr. Davidson was also an integral part in the formation of the Greater Philadelphia Bioinformatics Alliance. The Alliance pulls together the strengths of the affiliated institutions and focuses on workforce development through education, consortia, short courses, retreats, seminar series, fellowships, and internships.
To aspiring bioinformatics and computational biology students, Dr. Davidson stresses that students should work to develop a strong foundation at the undergraduate level in one subject area, focusing on mathematics, computer science or biology, and possibly minoring in another field. Courses such as calculus, statistics, literature, philosophy, and government are important to add additional breadth. She suggests to students and professionals alike that, in order to get the most out of your career, periodically reinvent yourself and do what you like doing. And from her serendipitous experience with Bioinformatics, she stresses that it is also important to be ready for “random and unplanned events”.
Dr. Davidson balances a tenured faculty position with raising a family by identifying priorities, following her interests, and learning from others. She demonstrates that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to and create success where there was none before. She is an exemplary model in the fields of computer science and bioinformatics, putting all the pieces together to assuage the conflicts between family and profession and traversing disciplines to bring together engineering, science, and mathematics.
About the student:
Stefanie Coforio is pursuing a bachelor’s in mathematics with a minor in biology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. She uses her mathematical talents to bolster appreciation and understanding of other subjects, particularly biology and physical and mental health. She intends to study the effects of nutrition and supplementation on intellectual and emotional development and work on research that will help advance preventative health care. She would like to continue in a research-oriented graduate program after her graduation in 2006.