Jayvee Abella Maps the Maturation Process of Viruses

JayveeAbella-470Jayvee Abella, second year graduate student in computer science at Rice University, is mapping unknown movements of large molecular systems like viruses. Why? “Viruses undergo significant structural changes as they expand to their mature state,” he said. “But these changes are difficult to see experimentally. If we can identify the precise motions of the virus during their rapidly expanding maturation process, then we can design therapeutics against the virus to block it before it reaches maturity and further infects its host.”

“Wah Chiu, my co-adviser at Baylor, is capturing three dimensional (3D) images of the virus in different states using cryo-EM,” said Abella. Wah Chiu, a professor in biochemistry and molecular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, leads a research team that studies biological nanomachines like viruses using cryo-EM. “But they are not only interested in how these viruses look at different states, they want to know how they transition between states, which is where my research comes in,” he said. “I develop algorithms to search for possible transitions between states and then characterize the overall transition with the resulting dataset. I work closely with the Chiu lab to make sure my results are biochemically meaningful.”

Lydia Kavraki, his Rice adviser and the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science, leads a research team that specializes in the development of algorithms originally inspired from the field of robotics. “I feel lucky to be working at the Kavraki lab because we are taking a really unique approach. I am able to develop algorithms to study these really large biological systems and do it efficiently,” he said.

He wrote to Kavraki even before he applied to Rice because he was so interested in the application of her robotics research for biomedical research. During the recruitment weekend, Kavraki gave the prospective Ph.D. students a tour of her lab. Abella said, “There is a lot of great biomedical research going on here in Houston and I wanted to tackle problems from a computational perspective. Then she showed us one of the potential research projects with the Chiu lab and I looked at that and thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do.’”

Jaybee Abella (right) and another CS Ph.D. student, Leo Elworth, both won 2016 Keck Fellowships.

CS Ph.D. students Jayvee Abella (right) and Leo Elworth both won 2016 Keck Fellowships.

“Then there’s Keck,” he said. One of the benefits of the CS graduate program is access to the Keck Center. Faculty and students from member institutions are encouraged to participate in events that promote interdisciplinary research training where biological and biomedical sciences interface with computational, physical, mathematical and engineering sciences.

Abella recently won a 2016 Keck Fellowship, a prestigious award with a financial prize for research, and opportunities for professional development such as presenting at two annual conferences. “The local conference is usually in October and I’ll be presenting in the poster session,” he said. “Last year, before I won the Keck Fellowship, I was impressed by the variety of research on display, like machine learning on hospital signals.” This year, participants will get their first look at Abella’s research mapping of the maturation process of a virus.

For more information on the largest academic department at Rice University, visit the Computer Science Department web site: http://cs.rice.edu.