Barak A. Cohen, PhD, and Robi D. Mitra, PhD, have been named Alvin Goldfarb Distinguished Professors of Computational Biology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The relatively new field of computational biology blends genetics and molecular biology with mathematics and computer science to solve biological problems.
The Goldfarb professorships support advances in biomedical sciences, particularly those that involve interpreting large amounts of genetic data. They were established in 2000, continuing a long history of philanthropy to the University by the late Alvin Goldfarb.
“Al Goldfarb will always be remembered as one of Washington University’s most important alumni,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “He demonstrated a great commitment to his profession, to St. Louis and to Washington University. He was a forward-thinking individual, and his generosity allows us to continue to develop our strength as a leader in the emerging field of computational biology.”
Goldfarb attended Olin Business School, leaving in 1937 to pursue a sales career. He went on to become president of Worth Stores Corp., a St. Louis-based retailer of women’s apparel.
Both Cohen and Mitra are associate professors in the Department of Genetics and well-known in the field of computational biology.
“Barak and Rob are exceptional in their field, and for both to be honored as Goldfarb professors is fitting,” says Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics. “Over the past decade, it has become much easier to generate enormous amounts of genetic data, and their work is crucial to helping scientists make sense of this information. We are so grateful to Mr. Goldfarb for his generous support of Drs. Cohen and Mitra and the university.”
Cohen’s research centers on understanding the genetic basis of complex traits. Working in yeast, a model organism, he has teased apart complex traits to reveal the precise genetic variations that, when combined, produce a particular trait. This work has implications for understanding the way in which genetic variations combine to influence an individual’s risk of common diseases like cancer and diabetes, which are caused by the interactions of many genes.
“The Goldfarb distinguished professorship is an honor and will help facilitate our research to decipher the staggering complexity of biological systems,” Cohen says. “This is an important first step toward being able to understand the genetic underpinnings of diseases in humans.”
Cohen also is a member of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, and he is on the faculty in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. Cohen received a doctorate in molecular genetics from Harvard University in 1998 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard in 2001. He joined the Washington University faculty in 2002 and also has been honored with an American Cancer Society Hope Award.
Mitra’s research focuses on developing methods to understand how master switches called transcription factors turn on genes to propel a cell to divide uncontrollably, leading to cancer, or to die. He and his colleagues also are studying how chemical markers called epigenetic factors attach to genes to influence the way genes are expressed. These factors are part of normal cell development, but if they shut off some genes or turn on others, cancer can result.
“This is a very exciting time to be a scientist,” Mitra says. “New technologies have given us the ability to explore the workings of the human genome at the most intimate level, which will improve our understanding of many diseases. I am grateful to Mr. Goldfarb for his support of this important work.”
Mitra also is a member of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology and an associate director of the university’s Genomics and Pathology Services initiative, which offers genetic testing for cancer and other diseases.
Mitra received a doctorate in electrical engineering in 2000 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University before joining the Washington University faculty in 2003.
Mitra currently has four patents that have been issued or pending. He also has received a Whitaker Young Investigator Award and a Keck Foundation Research Award.
Both Cohen and Mitra also have received awards for their outstanding mentorship to Washington University’s graduate students.