Entering a world of computer powered research - 176 years after Ada Lovelace

Blog posted by: Sylvana Hassanieh, DPhil student

In October 1843 Ada Lovelace published a set of notes which included a description of an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Ada Lovelace Day in early October celebrates the achievements of women in science. It also marked the start of Sylvana Hassanieh’s journey towards her PhD at the Department of Oncology, University of Oxford. She will also be using computer codes to understand the outcome of the S-CORT trial being led by Prof Tim Maughan at Oxford.

In this blog Sylvana describes her feelings as she steps into Ada Lovelace’s legacy.

“Work hard, dream big” is my mother’s favourite quote instilling in me the possibility of big dreams and achievements. Raised as a single child by a single parent, I learned that education and learning are my only means of becoming a better version of myself. This passion for learning makes a career in scientific research so appealing to me.

In Lebanon, research funding is scarce, thus, Harvard University was my “big dream”, never thinking that Professor Raul Mostoslavsky would accept me as a student in his lab where I had my first solid scientific experience. The Mostoslavsky laboratory focuses on understanding how DNA compaction, namely chromatin, modulates biological processes such as transcription, DNA recombination and repair. Working with skilled, passionate co-workers and under the supervision of an encouraging supervisor, I experienced a world-class research environment and took the opportunity to think independently about an exciting project.

Following the US experience, I decided to move to Europe and join Oxford University and the Department of Oncology to continue my scientific learning as a PhD student. I was granted a Cancer Research UK scholarship to work with Professor Tim Maughan on the S-CORT trial. S-CORT stands for Stratification in COloRecTal cancer. The S-CORT team aims to deliver a step change in the effectiveness of radiotherapy and chemotherapy by matching patients closely with the treatment that will benefit them the most.

The S-CORT trial uses a novel trial design, coupled to computer analysis (bioinformatics) to evaluate treatments suitable for patients with molecularly-defined subgroups of colorectal cancer. We investigate biomarkers to identify those patients likely to benefit from either chemotherapy (oxaliplatin), radiotherapy, minimal surgery or novel drugs. By learning the coding language ‘R’, I will investigate genetic signatures to identify groups of patients who will benefit from oxaliplatin which is a chemotherapy drug.

It is a coincidence that I join the Department of Oncology on Ada Lovelace Day, which is an international celebration and recognition of the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician who was first in the world to see the computer being more than just a calculating machine and rather an “analytical engine”. She is famous as the first to design written instructions for the first computer program and published her algorithm for generating Bernouli’s numbers with the computer. This makes her the first programmer in the world!

I will be using computer codes to find genetic signatures to identify colorectal cancer patients who will benefit from oxaliplatin treatment. I am so excited to move forward with my project under the supervision of an amazing PI. Throughout my years learning science, I have learned that research requires the insight to ask testable questions, the skill to design the perfect experiments to answer those questions and the creativity to analyse those data critically. I am confident that with the S-CORT team, I will develop all the coding and design skills and broaden my creativity to be able to impact cancer patients more effectively.

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