Bio Prof Will Trace Cancer’s Mixed Signals

Prof. Anna Ritz wins NSF grant to analyze signaling pathways in colon cancer.

By Romel Hernandez | December 3, 2018

The National Science Foundation has awarded $930,000 to support a Reed biology professor’s research into the way cells send signals—potentially leading to future discoveries about why cells go haywire in complex diseases such as cancer.

Prof. Anna Ritz is an expert in computational biology, a field that was barely in its infancy just 20 years ago. Her research focuses on designing computer algorithms to visualize and analyze signaling pathways, the process by which proteins interact to control the functions of a cell.

Data science holds incredible promise for biology. For example, researchers have amassed vast databases of information related to signaling pathways. Now they need tools to understand what the data actually means. Ritz, the first computational biologist at Reed, sees herself as a conduit between front-line biology researchers and computer scientists.

“There’s a gap between biologists doing this great work computer scientists don’t know about, and computer scientists developing these great tools biologists don’t know about,” she says. “As science gets more data-heavy, we need sophisticated tools and communication to study the data.”

The project promises to have broader applications in cellular and developmental biology.

“It’s very exciting to do something on a computer that you can then take back to the lab,” says  Miriam Bern ’19, a biology major who has worked as Ritz’s research assistant. “This field is about taking a biological problem and putting it in terms of a computational problem to solve.”

The research will integrate students every step of the way, through summer stipends for them to conduct research and funds to send a group to a national conference. The goal is to make Reed a model for doing research in computational biology at the undergraduate level.

Ritz, who earned her Ph.D in computer science from Brown University, says providing science students with a foundation in computation gives them an advantage whether they choose to attend graduate school or enter the job market, and she predicts that understanding computation will soon become as important a skill for biology majors as handling a microscope.

“I’ve had students tell me the reason they got a job in a lab is because they learned Python programming in my class,” she says. “I’ve had students with varying levels of prior computer experience in my classes, and I’d say they’ve all been successful.”

Ritz came to Reed in 2015 because it was a place she could balance teaching and research. She stands out as a mentor, especially for women in STEM.  “She is super approachable and easy to talk to,” Bern says. “Getting hands-on experience working with her is a confidence boost.”

And to think Ritz very nearly majored in English. A 100-level computer science course she took as a sophomore at Carleton College completely changed her career algorithm.

“I was sure after the first day [in the class] that I was going to fail,” she says. “ But I came to realize the field is really creative and all about solving puzzles.”

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Institutional, Professors, Research