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Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2014

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Singh wins prestigious early career award

President Bush's Office of Science and Technology Policy has awarded Mona Singh, assistant professor of computer science, a 2001 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Singh, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1999, is among 60 young researchers who received the award, which was established by President Clinton in 1996 and is the highest U.S. government award to scientists and engineers in their early careers. The award is expected to be conferred at a White House ceremony later this year.

As a computer scientist working on problems in biology, Singh is at the forefront of efforts to make sense of the great flow of data from the human and other genome projects. She is developing computing techniques for scanning whole genomes and quickly predicting which proteins are likely to interact with each other. Such understanding is critical for studying diseases and developing treatments.

With newly completed genome sequences in hand, scientists have "parts lists" for humans and many other organisms, Singh said. "Now what we are trying to do is figure out how these parts interact and bring the organism to life."

Singh is in a unique position to conduct this work because of a background that spans computer science and biology. After receiving an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, Singh earned a 1995 Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at Princeton, before acting on the suggestion of a mentor from MIT and joining a biology lab. She spent two years working with a structural biologist at the Whitehead Institute and MIT.

At Princeton, Singh has a joint appointment with the newly formed Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics . Her work is supported in part by a five-year, $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant, one of a limited number of prestigious awards given annually to young scientists, qualified her to be considered for the Presidential Early Career Award, which does not carry any additional money.

Singh is trying to use statistical methods to look for common patterns among proteins that interact so that scientists can use nothing more than gene sequence data to predict which proteins are likely to work together.

Genes contain instructions for making proteins, the large and complicated molecules that constitute much of the body. Proteins are often highly specialized, reacting with only a few of the many thousands of other proteins in a cell. These reactions are signals that trigger everything a cell might do, from dividing to producing insulin, in health or disease.

Many scientists are working to discover and map these interactions, but most approaches involve studying particular proteins or families of proteins rather than looking at the entire genome at once. Ultimately, said Singh, scientists may have a "pipeline" of approaches they can pursue in going from raw genomic data to detailed information about particular cells and molecules.

"I work on the first part of the pipeline," she said. "Computational approaches may help direct the more time-consuming and expensive experimental approaches that are necessary to uncover and verify the actual interactions between proteins."

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601

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