Yohei Rosen, a graduate student in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Jack Baskin and Peggy Downes-Baskin Fellowship.
Mathematician, MD, and PhD
Rosen has a very unique background for a graduate student in engineering. After completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theoretical mathematics, he decided to enter into medical school at NYU, where he began conducting biomedical research. His background in math provided him with a unique skill set in the lab, but he says he felt that it was being underused at NYU, and so he applied to a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellowship so that he could conduct research with Biomolecular Engineering Professor David Haussler in UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering. He said he felt UCSC would be a good fit for the kind of research he wanted to do because, as he explains, “David Haussler is really one of the few mentors in North America that have a similar background in terms of having a very mathematical way of thinking when they approach their research.”
Rosen spent the summer of his first year in medical school as an HHMI summer fellow with Haussler, and then returned as an HHMI full-year fellow. He says he found research in Baskin Engineering to be so productive that he decided to stay on, and is now a full-time PhD student in UCSC’s Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences and Engineering (PBSE). His main advisor is Professor Benedict Paten, but he is co-advised by David Haussler and is working on interdisciplinary projects with researchers in multiple labs.
An Interdisciplinary Line of Research
One of the two projects Rosen is currently working on is the Human Genome Variation Map. In the current model of human genetics, researchers use a set of 24 research chromosomes to identify variants in genes, known as alleles, but this reference set biases research toward a specific genetic subpopulation. The Human Genome Variation Map is ambitiously attempting to create a more comprehensive taxonomy for human variation, which requires an immense amount of data, and this is where Rosen’s background in mathematics becomes so useful. “My role on that project is largely the development of algorithms or data representations,” he says. “We are making our representation of the human genome so much more complex by adding this diversity, so that is a computer science challenge in terms of still being able to handle that data with today’s computers.”
Rosen’s other research project involves engineering devices. He is helping design devices for research labs to enable them to do much larger replication and more complex biological experiments. The project is led by David Haussler, but much of Rosen’s direct advising has come from an electrical and computer engineering professor, Mircea Teodorescu, and he also collaborates very closely with research scientist Sofie Salama in the Haussler Wet Lab. Rosen explains that this intense interdisciplinary collaboration is necessary to creating the kind of complex device they are working on. “I didn’t have an engineering background before I came here, so what I really didn’t anticipate was just how difficult it is to create and deploy a tool which actually works, and to bring all the people together to each bring their little bit of expertise” he told us. “ It is a lot more of a team effort and it takes a lot longer than I anticipated to build any kind of tool as an engineer.”
Rosen says he is grateful to have the Baskin Fellowship, because it will allow him to continue to do the kind of interdisciplinary work that has been so productive on both of his projects. He explains, “My work can’t really be tied to any one research grant. I think that is a kind of research that is very much in the culture here at UCSC, but it can be difficult to fund because that is not how research funding is traditionally structured. The Baskin Fellowship is funding my work at the intersection of all of these projects and grants, and it gives me the freedom to really do interdisciplinary work without worrying about funding.”
Mentoring Undergraduate Scientists
Rosen is excited about the research that he gets to conduct in the Baskin School of Engineering, but a more unexpected joy has been in the opportunity he has had to pass his knowledge on to others. He told us, “Another thing that I have really enjoyed about research here is just the really wide opportunities to mentor undergraduate students, and also the quality of those students here in terms of their independence and their cleverness. It’s been rewarding and I think in that respect, this is an institution that is unlike a lot of research universities.”
Rosen also believes that the university’s focus on undergraduate research facilitates greater scientific discovery and innovation. He says of mentoring, “I think it really helps improve the quality of your research, because you have to communicate what you’re doing and why, and sometimes your student mentee will have a better idea, or in really thinking through communicating your project, you’ll realize that something has to change.”
Rosen will finish his degree sometime in the next one to two years, after which he has multiple career paths he could choose from as a traditional physician-scientist, a university researcher, or a researcher in industry. What is most important to him, however, is that he be able to continue the work that he has found so generative at UCSC. “I think really what I want to do after this is whatever career path will allow me to continue the research I am doing now in the most effective way.”