Computer Science


Peter Gibbons Memorial Lecture Series: Developing Darwin's Computer

The third of four lectures on Computing: From Theory to Practice held on May 27, 2009

Speaker: Alexei Drummond, The University of Auckland

When: Refreshments at 5.30pm, lecture starts at 6.00pm.
Where: University of Auckland Conference Centre, 22 Symonds St, Building/room 423-342
Co-sponsored by: IEEE Computer Society

Alexei is Associate Professor in BioInformatics with the Computer Science Department and Bioinformatics Institute at The University of Auckland. Additionally, he is the Chief Scientist of the software and research company, Biomatters Ltd. His research work focuses on developing software tools and probabilistic models for understanding phylogenetics and population genetics from genes to genomes. His general research interests include: Statistical models and algorithms for understanding biomolecular sequence evolution, structure and function, Genomic sequence analysis, Coalescent-based population genetics, Virus evolution, Evolutionary theory, complexity theory and their intersection, and Bioinformatics software.

 

Synopsis: What would Darwin want his computer to do if he was alive today? Most science is now tackled with computational tools, and the field of evolutionary biology is no different in this respect. In this talk I will discuss how the study of evolution has been transformed into a computational science. The story crosses the boundaries of biology, computer science, mathematics, statistics and the humanities. The interdisciplinary nature of the research presents opportunities and challenges. This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, but we can only speculate on what he would make of the highly sophisticated and data rich science that has developed from his early work as a naturalist.

Our research group uses evolutionary modeling to tackle a wide range of questions. One exciting area of research we focus on is rapidly evolving pathogens such as HIV, Hepatitis C and Influenza viruses - where evolution is measured in weeks and years rather than by geological epochs. Modern computer-based analysis is now central to efforts to develop vaccines, track and predict epidemics and uncover the origins of some of the most widespread and harmful infectious diseases. Another research area continues a long tradition begun by Allan Wilson of using evolutionary data and quantitative techniques to reconstruct the origin and spread of humans around the globe. Finally, analytical techniques of computational evolution are being used and refined to characterize diverse natural populations of plants, animals and microbes, to assess their viability and infer their evolving relationships with their environments and ecosystems.

Tackling these problems requires not only an understanding of evolution and biology, but also innovations in statistical computing, algorithmics and other areas of computer science. Developing Darwin's computer therefore provides a fantastic opportunity for computer scientists to engage with the natural sciences and assist in solving problems of immediate relevance to health, disease, conservation and the environment.

The Bioinformatics program is an interdisciplinary program in which combinatorial problems abound. Peter Gibbons taught into this program from its beginning.

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