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Professor Alex Hartemink (center) with students Michael Mayhew, Jianling Zhong, Kevin Luo, and Yezhou Huang
"I actually started out in math and physics, and eventually pursued a master’s in economics. But, these were a bit less tangible than I wanted," he said. “I was looking for something that was based on strong theory and mathematical principles, but at the same time was relevant to everyday life. I wanted to work on things that were making people’s lives tangibly better.”
His search finally led him to computer science, where he currently works on computational genomics and machine learning within the Duke University computer science department.
Computational genomics is part of computational biology, a field that uses software to construct mathematical models of biological systems from experimental data. Within computational genomics, researchers study genomes, both their sequences and chromatin - the collection of different proteins that bind, package, and interact with genomes. Studying chromatin provides information about protein activities along the genome at any given place and time. Using this data, Hartemink’s group is learning more about how genomes are organized, interpreted, replicated, and maintained.
Hartemink is an active researcher. Most recently, his investigations have focused on the analysis and use of big data in genomics. Through this work, he’s trying to develop a more complete understanding of the cell in terms of its individual molecules and their interactions. Big data allows investigators to see how molecular biology informs the study of phenomena in cell biology, which, in turn, informs the understanding of individual cells within larger organisms.
These are complicated topics, so one of his greatest joys is engaging students and teaching them how to think through such problems. Getting students involved as part of the learning process rather than letting them be passive listeners is critical to giving them a good educational experience, he said.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always loved math and problem solving. I like finding problems and noodling on them until I have some insightful perspective or approach I’d like to try,”� Hartemink said. “And, once that light bulb goes off, I want to share the insight with others.”
Though he holds an appointment in the computer science department, Hartemink - who is also the director of the computational biology and bioinformatics Ph.D. program - has the opportunity to teach students from a variety of disciplines in his undergraduate Introduction to Computational Genomics class. This course draws students from computer science, biology, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, math, and economics. In his 12 years at Duke, he’ s also taught several different graduate courses.
In addition to the teaching and research duties, Hartemink also serves on various academic committees. For the coming school year, he will chair the Academic Programs Committee - a body that meets biweekly to discuss academic programs, consider external reviews, and approve new programs. He will also be an ex officio member of the University Priorities Committee that works with senior administrators to define University and academic priorities and ensure the University’ s annual and long-term budgets reflect those priorities.
However, life is not just about work for Hartemink, and he has other interests away from campus. In his free time, Hartemink - a soccer fanatic - can usually be found spending time outdoors with his wife, Melissa, and two children, Abby and Andrew, ages 10 and 8. They enjoy extensive family time together, including hiking, camping, swimming, or taking walks in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. In addition, he said, his family is active in Blacknall Presbyterian Church near East Campus. In fact, through the congregation, he’ s leading efforts to support a new university in war-torn Eastern Congo.
Regardless of how he spends his time, Hartemink is usually enjoying himself.
“I really like teaching and working with students in the classroom and advising graduate students on research," he said. “I like discovering things, solving problems, and thinking through new ideas. And, I like serving on committees to give back to the University. These are all fun for me."