Dr. Devin Absher, faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha, has been named one of the first recipients of the Sci-Quest “Quest for Excellence” award. The inaugural Mad Scientist Ball fundraiser, recently held at the Huntsville-based, hands-on science center, celebrated outstanding contributions by local individuals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  This year’s awards focused on individuals who bridge the gap between mathematics and its applications.
 
Absher and his lab use genomic technologies to uncover DNA changes relating to human disease, population history and aging. This research involves searching for patterns of DNA sequence variation among millions of genetic data points, requiring mathematical algorithms to separate the genetic “wheat” from the “chaff.”  Absher works with these mathematics-based calculations daily, testing a variety of methods to determine the best fit to the data.
 
“As recently as five years ago, genetic information was sequenced one data point at a time,” Absher said. With the advent of next-generation sequencing machines, data is sequenced millions of points at a time.  “Algorithms allow the terabytes of data generated with next-generation sequencers to be sorted through quickly.  As a result, finding similarities among genomes has become a more efficient process,” he concluded.
 
The field of human genomics relies on mathematical applications to identify key genetic features, determine estimates of personal risk and analyze potential therapies. “Dr. Absher is an excellent example of a scientist who moves easily among various mathematical algorithms, contributing to a better understanding of the genetic influence on health and disease,” said Dr. Rick Myers, president and director of HudsonAlpha.   Myers nominated Absher for the Sci-Quest award in the government/nonprofit category.
 
Basic algorithms have allowed Absher to study genomic factors that underlie many common disorders, including heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, bipolar disorder and autism.

The Sci-Quest hands-on science center is located on the Huntsville campus of Calhoun Community College.