Nicholas Camarda '16

Program II Profile: Quantitative Systems Biology
Hometown: Laguna Hills, CA

What is your PII about?
My PII sought to combine computational and mathematical sciences with the life sciences, specifically focusing on applied machine learning in genomics. The idea that interrogating real biological systems with a perspective backed by many areas of science was a core focus of my program.

Who are your PII mentors?
Dr. Henry Greenside, Dr. Ashlee Valente

What doors have been opened to you thanks to PII?
Aside from the fact that PII allowed me to pursue a diverse education in many disciplines of science and mathematics, it helped pave the way for my research interests within Duke's community and extracurricularly. Because of PII I was afforded the luxury of an advanced introduction to machine learning and statistics as a part of my PII Senior Capstone research at the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine under the mentorship of Ashlee Valente. Here I authored two research papers (unpublished) concerning aging and immunity, and I learned extensively about machine learning algorithms such as Random Forest and ElasticNet for biomarker discovery. Additionally, I was offered two summer internships in the Knowledge Informatics / Technology Innovations group at Foundation Medicine, a molecular information company based in Cambridge, MA because I was able to demonstrate my passion for informatics-based applications to research in cancer genomics with the design and execution of my PII. During this internship, I co-first authored a manuscript on predicting the significance of variants with unknown significance in brain cancer using latent class analysis, a multivariate categorical bayesian mixture model, in the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing.

What inspired you to pursue Program II?
I aspire to use my broad background in science, especially my knowledge of bioinformatics, to build better predictive models, risk analysis platforms and biomarker discovery pipelines in the burgeoning era of data-driven decision making in medicine. Ultimately, I felt that PII could facilitate the fruition of these aspirations, effectively starting me on the path towards making a difference in the lives of cancer patients.

What was your greatest challenge in designing your program?
The greatest challenge in designing my program was convincing my advisors and the PII committee that my program would be impossible to accomplish through any combination of majors, double majors, minors, or certificates. I maintained that bioinformatics in cancer genomics especially would require a broad understanding of many sciences, not just a combination of one or two or even three disciplines. In total, my PII combined courses from neuroscience, biology, chemistry, mathematics and statistics, physics, computer science and genomics, and working in cancer genomics research at Dana-Farber for the past eight months has more than confirmed my belief: the next generation of medicine will rely heavily on not only a deep understanding of biology but also informatics and mathematics to advance research and treatment modalities that translate into better patient care.

How did Program II factor into your post-graduation plans?
In part due to my experience at the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, after graduating Duke in May 2016 I have had the privilege of working as the lead bioinformatics analyst for a pancreatic cancer clinical research team at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute under the mentorship of Scott L. Carter. The team of which I am a part focuses on the genomic characterization of metastatic pancreatic cancer and relies heavily on knowledge from many disciplines in science. I also am an associate researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the Cancer Program, and because of my current position, past experience in PII and interest in medicine, I've been afforded the chance to shadow some of the best oncologists in the world, Priscilla Brastianos at Massachusetts General Hospital in their neuro-oncology clinic and Brian Wolpin at Dana-Farber in their gastrointestinal oncology clinic.