Dan Knights is a humble guy, with very little reason to be humble. A short list of his titles includes high school math teacher, computer scientist, and the 2003 Rubik’s Cube World Champion. He has appeared on the Today Show, The Discovery Channel and as an expert on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.” He also has co-authored 21 journal publications, including two in Science and three in Nature.
Knights is interested in applying machine learning and computational statistics to challenges in biology, genomics, and engineering. He is the first student to graduate from BioFrontier’s PhD certificate program in Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology, known as IQ Biology.
“The IQ Biology program encouraged me to continue to straddle the boundary between computation and biology,” said Knights. “It exposed me to a new group of scientists and strengthened my foundations in the life sciences.”
Knights defended his thesis work in April 2012, which also earned him the Outstanding Dissertation Award from CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. During his graduate studies, he was advised by computer science Professor Michael Mozer, and also spent time in the lab of BioFrontiers faculty member Rob Knight, researching the microbiome.
The microbiome is the enormous collection of bacterial species that coexist in and on living organisms, including humans, and contribute substantially to our health and disease. The bacteria can be identified indirectly through their DNA genomes, but these experiments generate a vast amount of information. Making sense of all that information required computer science expertise.
His advice to new graduate students? "Learn programming and learn how to write code. And don't be afraid to branch out and explore other disciplines during lab rotations. You might be surprised how these connections make you better at what you do."
Knights recently accepted a tenure-track faulty position as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. Before he heads to the City of Lakes, he is making a year-long stop at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to extend his research by doing post-doctoral work. His focus will be a mix of microbiome analysis, and a study of gut microbiota and the human immune response.
“It is unusual for a graduate student to jump right into a tenure-track faculty position, but Dan is unusually talented, and his accomplishments in both computer science and genomics served him well on the job market,” said Tom Cech, Director of the BioFrontiers Institute. “He sets a high standard for students in the IQ Biology program, and we wish him the very best.”
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