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Professor Mike Colvin Blends Computer Science and Biology to Build a Bridge to Discovery

August 26, 2004

MERCED, CA — Several years into his career as a computational biologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Michael Colvin, Ph.D., received a phone call from a science outreach worker at the local community college who wanted his help mentoring a group of first-generation college students from challenging backgrounds. He fell in love with the feeling of making a difference in students' lives, a passion that he shares with his wife Phung, who was director of the science outreach program.

Now he hopes to apply that mentoring and outreach experience in his job as a professor at the University of California, Merced.

“UC Merced's emphasis on outreach enhances the opportunity to create new groups and a new research university,” Colvin says. “I hope to do some of the same things I did at the community college with students at UC Merced, just painting on a much bigger canvas.” He hopes to bring students into his research from both computer science and biology backgrounds.

In addition to his enthusiasm for working with students, Colvin “paints” with exciting scientific tools and research. He uses computer modeling to describe and predict biological processes, especially at the molecular level, mainly focusing on how different substances interact with DNA, either causing or fighting cancer. He has pursued this work so far in his career at the Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and plans to add research at the cellular level at UC Merced.

“Professor Colvin is a driving force in developing the biological sciences program at UC Merced,” says Dean of the School of Natural Sciences Maria Pallavicini. “His expertise in computational biology, commitment to education and enthusiasm for bringing new biology to the Valley is exceptional. We are extremely fortunate that he is a founding faculty member at our campus.”

The pioneering spirit that brought Colvin to serve as one of the first professors at the newest UC campus also is reflected in the emerging discipline he has chosen as the focus for his research.

“You can hardly pick up a science magazine lately without reading editorials about how the field of biology is changing,” Colvin notes. “It's no longer a science of cataloging and memorization; there's important discovery going on at the most basic levels of life.”

This change, combined with recent improvements in computer technology, has created the relatively new field of computational biology. “The computer sitting on my desk is a thousand times more powerful than the supercomputers I used as a graduate student 20 years ago,” he says. “The difference in what we can accomplish is amazing.”

In one recent project, Colvin collaborated with Chris Mundy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to study how exposure to radiation from natural and manmade sources causes chemical reactions that damage DNA. Using computer models, they found that radiation interacts with water in a cell, forming an OH radical that goes on to change the DNA of the cell.

Colvin also formulates models that validate and explain cancer drugs. One new class of these drugs targets only cancer cells, which may reduce side effects of chemotherapy. On these types of projects he collaborates with his father, also named Michael Colvin, who is a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, and with researchers the Cancer Center at UC Davis. Ongoing efforts in this research are supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which Colvin brings with him to UC Merced.

Another NIH grant provides funds for what Colvin calls a “fun project” - studying how potentially cancer-causing chemicals can form in foods as they are prepared using different methods, such as frying in a pan. He completed one part of this project with an undergraduate researcher while he was at the Livermore lab, frying dozens of hamburgers and collecting data on how the levels of cancer-causing chemical formed. This data was used to create computer simulations of the cooking process that can be used to design cooking strategies that reduce the formation of these chemicals.

Colvin received a double undergraduate degree from MIT in chemistry and humanities. He was interested in biology at that point but felt then that the field was more description than discovery. Chemistry seemed more fundamental, he says, but what he learned in the humanities has helped him even more. The skills of reading, thinking and writing have seen him through all the changes in his scientific interests. “That's why UC Merced will strongly encourage upper-division writing courses for all students,” he says.

He received a Ph.D. in computational chemistry from UC Berkeley and began working in basic chemical physics at the Livermore lab immediately afterward. However, he continued to be drawn closer to his father's field of cancer research, and when a job in computational biology opened up at Sandia National Lab, Colvin jumped at the chance.

After some time, he was invited back to Livermore to begin a computational biology program and worked as the division leader there before coming to UC Merced. He plans to continue with a part-time appointment at Livermore, where he can collaborate with longtime colleagues and help UC Merced students make connections with unique research resources at the lab.