Vista Sohrab ’21, a biochemistry & molecular biology and informatics double major, was recently published as the first author on her paper, “TEfinder: A Bioinformatics Pipeline for Detecting New Transposable Element Insertion Events in Next-Generation Sequencing Data.” Transposable elements are mobile elements capable of introducing genetic changes rapidly, which are useful in many biological processes such as altering patterns of gene expression or accelerating genome evolution, per Sohrab’s paper abstract.
“There are tools out there that actually [detect transposable element insertion events], but the issue we had running it ourselves was that sometimes there’s too many software dependencies,” Sohrab said. “We just tried to put together a pipeline that would find these transposable elements that are inserting and not present in the reference genome.”
Sohrab’s career interests lie in computational genomics, which uses computer programming and analysis to study biology—particularly DNA and RNA sequencing. For this paper, her research hones in on finding the insertion events in genes that cause phenotypic variations in organisms. On a grander scale, this research could be expanded and used for identifying different neurological diseases or cancer, for example.
Though the circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic forced many to alter their research plans, Sohrab was able to continue focus on her transposable element research.
“[The pandemic] actually didn’t affect me all that much, which is a good thing about computational work because the data is always there,” Sohrab said. “Everything is there for you, whereas experimental work needs lab access.”
Among many faculty that shaped her experience at UMass, Sohrab credits biochemistry professor Li-Jun Ma for her assistance with her paper and more.
“In and outside of Honors, I just feel like a lot of the faculty here are really helpful,” Sohrab said. “You’re able to speak with them, build relationships, work on lab work or curriculum. All the faculty I’ve interacted with have been very helpful.”
Sohrab credits Commonwealth Honors in particular for the early introduction to research it has given her, allowing her to develop collaboratively with researchers.
“I had the opportunity of not only doing this, but also my thesis,” Sohrab said. “Its very good to be in such a type of institution that gets you into research early, where you can be committed to a project for a very long time and gain so much help and mentorship from faculty, graduate students, and the whole student body.”
On top of publishing her paper, Sohrab is currently working on an Honors thesis project studying mitochondrial genomes and identifying molecular markers for various strains in the field. She will attend UMass Medical School’s Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences in Worcester, Massachusetts, this fall, where she hopes to continue her research in bioinformatics.
“It feels good to be able to contribute to the scientific community,” Sohrab said. “I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of papers, so it feels fulfilling, in a way, to put out the research you're doing that, hopefully, other people can use.”