Prof. Manolis Kellis: Combining computer science with biology by Melis A. '08
An interview with Manolis Kellis, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, who was honored as one of Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35 for his pioneering research in comparative genomics.
University professors are often portrayed as self-absorbed individuals that are too busy plotting their next breakthrough to pay any attention to their undergraduate students. While I have never encountered such a professor at MIT, Manolis Kellis, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, definitely destroys this all-too-prevalent stereotype. Last week, Prof. Kellis was honored as one of Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35 for his pioneering research in comparative genomics. When I sat with him today and asked him what it was like to receive such a distinction, he seemed genuinely surprised that I had even heard the news and immediately attributed his achievements to his unbelievable colleagues and students. He spoke very openly about his passion for research, love for MIT, outlook for the future of genomics, and pressures of living up to the hype that awards generate.
Kellis was born in Greece, but moved with his family to France and eventually arrived in the U.S. in 1993. Manolis, his sister, and his brother were all accepted to MIT within nine months of each other. He says that MIT was the only school he applied to, and for him it was the obvious choice. At MIT, he felt that the sky was the limit and he could do whatever he wanted to do. But since his acceptance, he admits that his path has been partly determined by a series of coincidences.
He chose to study Computer Science because it was an interesting, broad major that could open doors to any area. Manolis got his first, and only, UROP by “total chance.” As he was walking through a corridor, he saw a friend who was on his way to a job orientation for the World Wide Web Consortium, led by Tim Berners-Lee (father of the Web). It sounded interesting so he tagged along and got chosen for one of the positions. He wrote a programmable WebCrawler for his project, but more importantly, he got an early start, which attracted companies and led to better opportunities. Without that UROP, he says, he “probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Manolis’s interest in biology, and genetics in particular, also appears to be serendipitous. One day, he ran into a friend who happened to be reading a biology book that he himself owned. That friend opened his eyes to biology and introduced him to Eric Lander, the driving force behind the Human Genome Project, who eventually became his thesis advisor. Manolis says that seeing the genomic data – the string of A, T, G, and C’s – was like seeing himself in the mirror. He became fascinated by the “code that makes us work” and “could never look back.”
Manolis continued his studies at MIT by getting a Masters in Engineering (M. Eng) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and then entered the field of comparative genomics for his Ph.D. while the field was still in its infancy. Comparative genomics basically compares the genomes of different organisms to figure out what in the genome is important and how organisms might have evolved. For example, if the same string of A, T, G, and C’s appears in dogs, rats, and humans at about the same place, then chances are that this string codes for something important that is worth keeping around for millions of years. So, Manolis compared the first four eukaryotic genomes, which all belonged to yeast, using a novel process to find genes and other pieces of DNA that determine when a gene is expressed. His research has received numerous awards and has been published seven times in the prestigious journal, Nature, in the past 3 years.
Finally, Kellis accepted a faculty position at MIT because of the students, his love for academia, the sense of camaraderie, and the ability to be in the middle of everything. After all, he points out, where else can you teach at the #1 program in Computer Science, surrounded by some of the best biological and medical institutions in the world. He also gushes about his students, who he deems are “so brilliant.” Kellis emphasizes that he has so much to learn from his students and loves the feeling that we are “all sitting together at a round table, trying to understand science.” In general, he finds MIT students to be intellectual, motivated, sincere, diverse, and down to earth. He also loves that he has always felt accepted by MIT professors and appreciates that he has been treated with the utmost respect since his freshman year.
Few people have seen MIT from as many perspectives as Manolis Kellis: as an undergraduate, a graduate student, and a member of the faculty. I would also venture to say that few people understand what makes MIT unique as well as he does. He accredits the success of MIT to a group of people that are brilliant in their own ways but work together. The power of diversity is evidenced by the fact that a colony of genetically identical bacteria can be wiped out by a single antibiotic. In the same way, cloning is boring since the secret to survival lays in the mutations, the diversity. Kellis finally emphasized that in life there are no right answers, we must always be creative, grab opportunities when they appear, and accept that mistakes will happen.
(Picture of yeast from here)