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Computer science graduate earns university’s award for master’s thesis paper

Kittinun Vantasin, who earned his master's degree in computer science in 2010, won this year's University of Missouri Outstanding Master's Thesis Award. His paper proposes new computational methods for assessing the qualities of computationally generated protein models.

A recent master’s degree graduate of computer science won this year’s University of Missouri Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award for his paper on algorithms that can evaluate the quality of predicted protein structures.

Kittinun Vantasin’s paper, “New Consensus-Based Algorithms For Quality Assessment in Protein Structure Prediction” proposes new computational methods for assessing the qualities of computationally generated protein models. The algorithm helps researchers examine for quality protein structures based on a consensus-based approach.

“We’re trying to understand how nature works, and one of the things we want to understand is how proteins work,” Vantasin said. “In order to fully understand that, we need to know what they look like — the structure of proteins in three dimensions.”

Vantasin’s paper discusses the quality assessment (QA) methods he and other MU computer science researchers created for the purpose of determining the quality of predicted protein structures, later using these algorithms to compete with world-wide experts in that field at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored Ninth Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP9) in 2010. Vantasin’s group took the top three spots in the QA category based on official results with quality score of 0.936 (perfect score is 1.0).

The protein folding problem is considered a grand challenge and, in 2005, Science named it one of the 125 biggest unsolved problems in science. Researchers’ goals are to predict the 3-D structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence. It is an active area in bioinformatics, which is the application of computer science and information technology combining with physics and biology into life science research.

Twenty years ago, mostly biologists worked on this type of research because computers were slow and expensive. In recent years, computational methods, assisted by high-performance computers, have made significant progresses and are producing impressive results.

Distinguished Master’s Thesis Awards are given to students who received master’s degrees in the previous academic year. Students eligible for the 2012 award must have received their degrees in December 2010, or May or August 2011. Vantasin, who earned his bachelor’s degree in his home country, Thailand, graduated with his master’s degree in computer science in December 2010.

“I’m feeling great, very good, actually,” Vantasin said about winning the award. “It was like my hard work paid off.”

Since graduating from MU, Vantasin spent time working in San Francisco before moving back to Bangkok in August.

Each MU department or area of study that offers a master’s degree may submit one nomination, which includes a written endorsement from the department chair or the director of graduate studies in the candidate’s field. Vantasin’s graduate faculty adviser, Professor Yi Shang, nominated him for the award.

“He’s a great mentor and adviser,” Vantasin said of Shang. “He enlightened me to do something better than what’s already there.”

The award is meant to recognize students’ first graduate research degrees. Students who received a doctorate prior to writing their master’s thesis are not eligible.

Nominations are submitted in the fall. The Graduate Faculty Senate Awards Committee evaluates the nominations and selects the award recipient.

The recipient of the master’s thesis award receives a $500 honorarium and will be honored at a reception. Vantasin’s thesis also will be the university’s submission for the Midwestern Association of Graduate School Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award.

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