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Completing the sequence: Doctoral student’s research leads to job in academia

Photo of Debswapna Bhattacharya pointing toward 3-D model on a computer screen

Debswapna Bhattacharya explains the different parts of the structure of a protein and how they are represented by different colors.

The problem-solving methods and solutions found in computer science are some of reasons students like Debswapna Bhattacharya pursue the discipline. Not only are there numerous opportunities for a successful personal future throughout the world, but also the opportunities for discoveries in the field are infinite.

“(Computers) are free from external influences,” he said. “They will learn to do only what we tell them to learn.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in computer science, Bhattacharya, like many other fresh graduates, entered the workforce, which allowed him to travel to and live in places far from his homeland of India.

Photo of Debswapna Bhattacharya

Debswapna Bhattacharya

Bhattacharya worked for two Fortune 500 companies, Accenture and Cognizant Technology Solutions, which eventually took him to Manchester in the United Kingdom.

“The industry experience taught me about the software development cycle,” Bhattacharya said, an experience that made him feel more prepared for graduate school.

“I realized, in terms of knowledge, I was getting stuck,” he added.

He looked for graduate programs that included bioinformatics, an area he became familiar with at his second job, and came across the work of Computer Science Department Professor Jianlin Cheng and his Bioinformatics, Data Mining and Machine Learning (BDM) Laboratory.

The two connected through email. Cheng said he was interested in bringing Bhattacharya’s to MU within the first few letters.

“He has very good communication skills,” Cheng said. “I saw his potential through his email skills.”

The decision was not so easy for Bhattacharya, who finished his master’s degree from MU in 2014.

“It was a very though time for me,” he said. “I had a good and permanent job, and I was thinking of leaving all of it for school.

“But the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived here have been the golden days of my life,” he added.

Photo of 3-D protein structure

Bhattacharya’s research creates images, such as this one of a 3-D structure of Hemoglobin protein (PDB ID: 1GZX ), present in human’s red blood cells. Its primary function is to carry oxygen from the respiratory organs to the rest of the body. Photo courtesy of Debswapna Bhattacharya

Bhattacharya’s research in Cheng’s lab involved protein-folding prediction and refinement.

“We know proteins fold into unique shape in order to perform biological functions,” he said. “But what we don’t know is how they fold.”

He completed his first paper as lead-author his during his first year of grad school, which was later featured in Proteins: Structure, Function, and Bioinformatics, a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field of structural bioinformatics. The paper created a method for 3-D protein model refinement, or as Bhattacharya puts it, “making it energetically favorable and physically realistic.”

The method made his work one of Proteins most cited papers that year.

Since then, Bhattacharya has served as first-author of five more papers that are either currently published or under peer-review, and four papers as a secondary author. In 2013, he was named the College’s Outstanding Ph.D. student in the Computer Science Department.

Currently, he’s finishing his dissertation, which he plans to successfully defend by the end of summer. He has also accepted a tenure-track faculty position at Wichita State University in Kansas, which he will begin in the fall.

“I’m really looking forward to setting up my lab (at Wichita State),” he said. “It’s a high motivator.”