Guest Post By Chichi Zhu, NC School of Science and Math

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), is tucked away behind the supermarkets and youth-infested restaurants on Ninth Street in Durham. It’s a National Science Foundation brainchild with the purpose of consolidating data collected on small scales to help evolutionary biologists answer larger scale questions.

Allen Rodrigo

Allen Rodrigo directs NESCent and is a professor of biology at Duke

NESCent pursues a variety of missions, from answering these big ideas to connecting evolutionary science to linguistics and religious and cultural studies. Behind NESCent’s day-to-day function is evolutionary biologist Allen Rodrigo.

As a response to the question “so, what exactly is it that you do?” Rodrigo laughs. Here at NESCent, he oversees all of the programs, managing NSF grant money and keeping each part of the center on track with its mission. But NESCent is coming to the end of its funded run, and Dr. Rodrigo himself does far more than direct this innovative program.

Rodrigo is also a professor at Duke University and a computational evolutionary biologist. As a student, he was interested in three areas of study: mathematics, computer science, and biology. He continued pursuing all three tracks throughout his higher education, and allowed coincidence to launch him into his field today. The timing of his post-doc perfectly coincided with a late-1980s boom in technologic and scientific advances. With the invention of PCR and the subsequent increase in ability to study genetics, there came a demand for people with the skill and ability to conduct studies computationally, thus propelling Dr. Rodrigo into this growing field.

“There are many benefits to using computational methods,” Rodrigo said. “Suppose you want to compare two potential hypotheses on how a system might look, what patterns you might see. A computational biologist can help you with that.” He advocates for his area of study with a digestible list of its merits: “It helps experimentalists, it helps make inferences, and it helps make predictions about patterns.”

Today Rodrigo teaches classes at Duke, including courses on statistics for biologists and courses on computational science. He applies his passions for computational biology to his own research.

He is currently using computational study to track the evolution of traits of cancer related to their malignancy. “We start with a small set of cells and develop simulations that tell us how these cells change, grow, and divide,” Rodrigo said. “We can simulate how mutations accumulate, and can simulate, for a given collection of cells, what patterns of evolution you’d obtain.”

Chichi Zhu

Chichi Zhu

Working with oncologists from Duke, his job is to use these computational and mathematical methods to search for patterns that oncologists can then use to collect laboratory data. “To do this all in a lab would take quite a long time,” he said. “To apply computational biology is much more efficient.”