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A Pattern Worth Exploring
Gregory "G.W." Schwartz ’11
Working diligently through a math problem during his independent study this semester, Gregory "G.W." Schwartz '11 knew something was amiss. The answer did not make sense, even though it appeared in material archived by researchers.
"Wait a second, that's not what I got," Schwartz said. "How could this possibly be less than 1?"
Schwartz brought the problem to the attention of Professor of Mathematics Annalisa Crannell, his independent study supervisor. "I said, 'Professor Crannell, I don't understand this part.' She said, 'That's because it's wrong!'"
Schwartz also discovered a second error, a switched symbol in another problem. The multiple catches are prime examples why Schwartz, a mathematics and biology double major, is on the fast track to success as a research student. He is exploring fractal methods of genome identification in his work, which he will present at the spring research fair.
"G.W. is a student who really got to make up his own project and lead the instructor—I don't know anything at all about genomes," Crannell says. "And he's smart enough to correct the work of research mathematicians halfway around the world."
Schwartz works with fractals, which are patterns that emerge in a given entity. Smaller branches of broccoli, for example, look almost identical to the plant itself. Schwartz looks for those patterns in genomes, particularly as they relate to noncoding DNA.
"Before my research, I had no clue there were patterns in these genes," Schwartz says. "I didn't know how not random they are."
The research has implications for the understanding of noncoding DNA. Schwartz is comparing fractal representations of coding and noncoding sequences in a quest to find out whether the noncoding sequences are worth exploring in more depth. "We want to see if new patterns exist. Maybe noncoding DNA is more useful than people thought it could be. It might say nothing, but it might help us immensely."
For Schwartz, the research has confirmed the importance of bioinformatics as an emerging discipline. He has created his own computer program to synthesize the enormous amounts of data relating to noncoding DNA. "You can predict different protein structures with bioinformatics," he says. "Everyone needs a bioinformaticist. Sequencing genomes used to be a long and excruciating process, but now you can do it in a few days. That's why the field is exploding now. Biology is an incredibly different field from what it used to be."
Schwartz also has an eye for patterns in music, one of his longtime passions. A member of the F&M Orchestra, he has been playing the violin since the age of 5. He is a fan of classical music and powerful film scores.
"You can actually see patterns in sheet music, and listen to them in film scores," he says. "Variations on themes can create intricate overlaps between characters and themes, making for a great interpretation and a fantastic listen by such composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann and John Williams."
As he prepares to perform with the orchestra this spring, Schwartz continues to investigate patterns in genomes. He recently proposed a new abstract for his project, and new questions constantly arise.
"I want to fuel skepticism," he says. "I love researching what we don't know."