April 2008 Issue
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Money Grows on Trees

Srinath Sridhar studies trees—family trees, that is. But they’re no garden-variety family trees with simple slots for mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. They’re phylogenetic trees—complex graphs that show the evolutionary relationships among biological species or other entities thought to have a common ancestor.

Sridhar, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s computational biology PhD program, discovered new algorithms to help map out phylogenetic trees. By using the formulas to characterize and analyze single-nucleotide polymorphisms (single-base changes at one position on the human genome), Sridhar is helping to pave the way toward a better understanding of what causes evolutionary changes in DNA sequences in the first place and toward determining the genetic causes of disease.

Groundbreaking research like Sridhar’s—as well as that of his computational biology peers—is getting a major boost, thanks to the largest private foundation grant in Carnegie Mellon’s history. The Richard King Mellon Foundation recently established a life sciences competitiveness fund to support the “best and brightest” graduate students in the university’s life sciences, such as Sridhar’s field, computational biology, as well as medical robotics and biomedical engineering. The historic $25 million gift will support the hiring of faculty, construction of new labs, and creation of a Presidential Scholars Fund for the next generation of leaders in the life sciences.
—Elizabeth May

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