Young wonders

Daniela Witten sits outside her office in the Health Sciences Building, where she works as a biostatistician and serves as an assistant professor in the UW's School of Public Health.

The categorizing of professionals at the top of their fields into various brackets is a popular end-of-the-year summary trend; hence the "30 under 30", "20 under 20" lists that sprout like Christmas lights over the covers of various magazines during the holidays.

UW has a strong presence in one of the most recent "30 under 30" lists published by Forbes, one that focused on scientific and technological achievements. Five scientists with UW ties are listed: Daniela Witten, Sidhant Gupta, Jacob Appelbaum, Sarah Ng, and Jeffrey Kidd.

Every year Forbes magazine makes lists of people with less than 30 years under their belts who are already at the top of their fields.

Those chosen with connections to the UW come from a variety of scientific and technological areas of study. Witten is an assistant professor of biostatistics in the UW School of Public Health. Gupta and Appelbaum both work in the UW Computer Science and Engineering Department, focusing on different areas.

Gupta, a graduate student, is completing software and user systems for cheap sensors that can conserve energy output by monitoring electricity, heat, and gas usage. After graduating from the UW Genome Sciences Department, Kidd was named assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan, and Ng is a UW graduate student training in genome sciences with Jay Shendure and other renowned scientists at the UW's Northwest Genomic Sequencing Center and the new Mendelian Genomics Center.

Being a recent addition to the UW faculty, Witten splits her time between teaching and her research focusing on how genes cause disease. She explains the various factors employing artificial intelligence programs that search through mounds of genomic data in order to discover trends and mistakes.

"In your intro statistics class, you learn how to develop equations for small or large populations, with one or two variables, etc., and lots of measurements," Witten explained. "However, in genomic science, there are millions of variables with few measurements. I've been working with statistical software packages in order to develop new tools that researchers can then use to study their data."

This is a recent field. Genetic sequencing and the need for such innovative programs is only 10 to 15 years old. Witten, among others, is on the cusp of new statistical challenges and developments.

The UW is an excellent place for working on such projects, Witten said, due to its strong science presence and consequent need for statistical analysis of data of this kind.

"What researchers and engineers need are statistical tools that can analyze the mass amounts of data that the Internet and genomic sciences, among other sciences, generate," Witten said, who focuses on genetic sequencing.

Gupta is working on a research project called ElectriSense, a sensor that can be installed in 15 minutes to track energy usage at an appliance level as well as total energy consumed over the last seven days. There will be an iPad app that can track the energy usage by appliance while you turn each appliance on and off to determine which appliances use the most electricity.

Gupta has been working on the project since 2009. ElectriSense is already patented and has been acquired for commercial purposes.

"I expect it should be released on the market in 2012," Gupta said. "We're nearly done designing the user system; I wanted to make it accessible and easy to use so that the average customer can install it himself in 15 minutes."

As for Gupta's future plans, he has 12 to 15 months left at the UW to complete his degree and finish working on numerous other projects he is involved in, such as LightWave, a plug-in sensor similar to ElectriSense, that can turn ordinary compact fluorescent lights into human-proximity and temperature sensors.

Appelbaum is a staff scientist at the UW and colleague of Gupta's who investigates computer security with an emphasis on privacy and network filtering. He has been detained by U.S. authorities several times under suspicion of involvement in WikiLeaks, most recently at Keflavik airport in Iceland in October 2011. However, his only definite connection to WikiLeaks is representing the organization at the 2010 HOPE Conference, a biennial hacker convention.

Genomic science and its affiliated statistical branch comprise the other researchers' disciplines: Ng works at the UW's Northwest Genomic Sequencing Center, employing sequencing to identify genes that cause disease.

Shendure, head of Ng's lab, said the UW is a hotspot for genomics research and a national leader in the field. UW genomic programs were recently awarded a $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to attempt to solve all remaining Mendelian disorders.

"Our work and success in this particular area is actually a direct consequence of Sarah Ng's graduate work," he said. "She led several studies that pioneered the use of next-generation DNA sequencing to solve Mendelian disorders."

Kidd also worked in genetic sequencing in his graduate studies at the UW. However, he uses it to trace the path of evolution through primates. Kidd then headed to Stanford University's department of genetics, where he applied approaches from genomics and population genetics to understand how the past history of human populations impacts the variation observed around the world today. At the University of Michigan, Kidd will establish his own research group on genomic variation.

Even though the young scientists are focused on their research projects, the Forbes ranking hasn't gone unnoticed.

"The publicity from the Forbes list has been nice," said Gupta, who welcomes the publicity for ElectriSense. "I'm not yet at the point where I'm looking for jobs, as I still have to complete my degree at the UW. UW has a very good CS team - I'm lucky to be involved in so many good projects."

Reach reporter Garrett Black at news@dailyuw.com.

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