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NCSA Student Spotlight: Angelynn Huang and Sophia Torrellas

by Ananya Saxena

The complexities of genomics are challenging enough to trouble an adult, much less a student of any age. However, high-schoolers Angelynn Huang (junior) and Sophia Torrellas (freshman) defy this commonly held belief. These two University of Illinois Laboratory High School students are a powerhouse duo from NCSA’s Frankel Scholars program. Through their research with the NCSA Genomics team studying the use of high-performance computing for genomic biology under the guidance of Senior Research Scientist, Liudmila Mainzer, they have not only been able to conduct benchmarking programs and compute actual DNA sequence tests in their research, but were also invited to attend and present at the New Mexico Bioinformatics, Science and Technology (NMBIST) Symposium in Santa Fe, NM.

Angelynn Huang, a competitive swimmer and biology enthusiast, first heard about the Frankel Scholars Program through her science teachers at school who were heavily promoting it. To strengthen her knowledge of biology, she decided to look further into the program and found that one of the labs studies computational genomics. This brought her to NCSA SPIN Open House at NCSA. After hearing Dr. Mainzer present some of the work she does with the Genomics team, Angelynn’s interest in the program was cemented.

Similarly, Sophia Torrellas, a figure ice-skater in her free time, did not need much convincing to apply for the program. She says that she has always been interested in biology because of her love for animals, her pet bunny in particular. She participated in the bioengineering camp here at the University last summer, which made her more willing to seek similar opportunities.

Both Angelynn and Sophia agreed that the most thrilling experience in the program so far has been the opportunity to attend the NMBIST Symposium in Santa Fe. After submitting an abstract and creating a poster peer reviewing a past paper on computational genomics, the young scientists were selected to showcase their findings in front of scientists, researchers, and industry specialists. They applied for travel grants through their high school and practiced their presentation with their mentor, Dr. Mainzer. At the conference, Angelynn remarked, “Learning more about the research topics of scientists allowed me to see how wide the scope of computational genomics is.” Sophia added that “Many researchers gave us valuable advice on our poster presentation,” which further enriched the experience for the girls.

According to Dr. Mainzer, “Individualized medicine is here. It is real and requires participation of many advanced experts across multiple domains. Gaining such level of expertise is very difficult, it requires a lot of time, effort and is a huge personal investment. This is why I believe we must support young people on this path from the very beginning of their career. Even on the relatively simple project of Sophia and Angelynn, it took two undergraduates, one graduate student, two research programmers and a program manager to help them along and make it a success. That is the nature of our discipline: it really does take a village to raise a new expert. I think that Sophia and Angelynn did extremely well, I am so proud of them. Just as I am proud of the Genomics team, who rallied to make it possible.”

For these budding researchers, their Frankel Scholars experience with NCSA has been unique. Angelynn is fascinated by the intersection of biology and computer science, and as she studies for the ACT, she is excited at the prospect of pursuing these interdisciplinary studies. Sophia, as only a freshman, has found that biology goes beyond wet lab experiments and is looking forward to exploring further opportunities in computational sciences. They both agree that balancing this program with their high school commitments has not been without its challenges, but through the unwavering support of Dr. Mainzer and experiences like the NMBIST Symposium, it has surely been worth their while.

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