January 20, 2011

Two named as ‘rising stars’ among principal investigators

Two named as ‘rising stars’ among principal investigators

William Bush, Ph.D., and Tricia Thornton-Wells, Ph.D., have been recognized as two of “Tomorrow's PIs” by the magazine Genome Technology.

William Bush, Ph.D.

William Bush, Ph.D.

In a fifth annual special issue, the magazine profiled 24 young investigators from around the world who are “rising stars” among principal investigators (PIs) in the fields of genomics and systems biology.

Tricia Thornton-Wells, Ph.D.

Tricia Thornton-Wells, Ph.D.

Bush and Thornton-Wells are the third and fourth investigators from Vanderbilt's Center for Human Genetics Research to be selected for the distinction, said Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., director of the Center and T.H. Morgan Professor of Human Genetics.

“This selection highlights the visibility that the Center's genomic work is getting internationally, and is a testament to our outstanding junior faculty,” he said.

Bush, assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics, and his team are working to identify the genetic mechanisms that underlie common human characteristics and disease.

They are particularly interested in understanding how genetic variation influences gene regulation and gene expression, and using this knowledge to better understand multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders, and various types of cancer.

The group is using a combination of bioinformatics, basic statistical approaches, and advanced data mining to explore how patterns of genetic variation affect the function of both individual genes and entire biological systems.

“We make an enormous leap when trying to relate a single change in DNA sequence to a complex disease like multiple sclerosis,” Bush said. “There are lots of processes that translate genetic variation into disease risk, and we are beginning to have enough data to explore the space between.”

Bush earned an M.S. in Applied Statistics and Computational Intelligence and a Ph.D. in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt University.

Thornton-Wells, assistant professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, and Biomedical Informatics, and her colleagues focus on the genetic and neural underpinnings of developmental and psychiatric disorders such as Williams Syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

The group uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify functional and structural brain-based characteristics (phenotypes) related to the disorders, and then conducts genetic studies to identify novel associations between these characteristics, genes and behavior. They are developing statistical and computational methods to analyze genetic and neuroimaging data — an area they call “imaging genetics.”

“I believe that in order to fully realize the potential of fast-evolving genomic technologies, we also have to be creative on the phenotyping end of things,” Thornton-Wells said.

“With quantitative, physiologically-relevant phenotype measures, such as those we are obtaining with MRI, we have the opportunity to discover some of those missing links that have so far eluded us, particularly those of us in neurogenetics.”

Thornton-Wells earned an M.S. in Biomedical Informatics and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Vanderbilt University.