Grace Silva

Hometown: Lanham, Maryland
Undergraduate: UMBC, Meyerhoff Scholar (M17)

Grace Silva is passionate about two things: science and basketball. In high school she was a varsity state basketball champion and was first introduced to computer programming at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt Maryland as part of the Academy of Information Technology program. As a Bioinformatics & Computational Biology student at UNC, Grace had a hugely successful thesis project while also coaching an 11 and 12 year old girls’ basketball team and playing intermural basketball on campus. Grace’s advisor, Dr. Chuck Perou, is quick to say that Grace “was an exemplary student who excelled in the lab.” and her high profile publications bear that out. How did she manage to accomplish so much in lab while committing herself year after year to middle school girls’ basketball? Simply put, Grace lives by her motto “Work hard, play hard” and often is doing both at the same time. She explains: “I loved coaching. Being around the team was my stress reliever – they are so funny and love life. It tooks a lot of time but that’s why I love bioinformatics: I can code wherever. I would set up a job to run, then go to practice and the computer wass doing work for me while I’m gone so I didn’t miss a beat.”

Grace’s pathway to graduate school started when she became a Meyerhoff Scholar at University of Baltimore, Maryland County. As a Meyerhoff scholar Grace worked in a lab on campus during the school year and did summer research programs at other campuses including Princeton and Stanford during her summers. She explored everything from immunology to circadian rhythms to electrical engineering during those research experiences. Initially she was pre-med and a Biology major but mid-way through college she realized she didn’t like her hospital shadowing experiences and that her coursework wasn’t holding her interest. Without really knowing what it entailed, she switched her major to Bioinformatics because it seemed to combine her love of computers with her interest in science. She remembers knowing immediately it was a good fit because she loved the real world implications of the problems in her classes. “It was hard but it was fun so I didn’t mind the work.” she recalls.

Grace learned about UNC’s Bioinformatics & Computational Biology (BCB) curriculum at an undergraduate research conference. She had a lot of offers for graduate school but chose UNC because “it was the only school that actually had an umbrella program for admissions. And the curriculum format of the BCB program was exciting. The faculty members in BCB were from all over campus, with a variety of research areas, and that meant I would have options for exploring”. Grace ultimately chose to work on breast cancer in Chuck Perou’s lab. Her project was part of The Cancer Genome Atlas project (TCGA) , a decades long, multi-institutional effort to identify the molecular causes of cancer through genomic sequencing and analysis. Looking back at this historic experience Grace says “It was so awesome. There was a ton of data, and all the participants were asking such a huge variety of questions. It was really fun– and it was really exciting for my family when it got press in the New York Times.” Grace set out to develop statistical methods and computational approaches to identify and characterize common genomic copy number alterations (CNA)s in breast cancer. This work was an extension of the Perou lab’s groundbreaking work that used gene expression analysis to identify a molecular signature for different sub-types of breast cancer each with differing survival rates and responsiveness to treatment. The Perou lab has continued to characterize these different subtypes, termed Basal-like, Claudin-low, HER2-enriched, Luminal A, and Luminal B, with the goal of understanding the molecular drivers behind each one.

Grace’s hypothesis was that identification of common copy number alterations would reveal genes that are responsible for progression of cancer and provide potential therapeutic targets to more specifically and effectively treat cancer. One of Grace’s projects identified a small region of chromosome 1 that is frequently amplified in basal-like breast cancers and hypothesized several specific genes in that region may be drivers of that type of cancer. In another project Grace identified eight specific genes that are uniquely amplified in one type of breast cancer called luminal-subtype, a fast growing cancer for which few therapies exist. Grace says “The results that have started to come out of TCGA really show how there is a need for collaborations like this across institutions and hospitals. Even with all the progress we made, there is still so much to do.” Grace really enjoys the collaborative nature of the computing community. “I work with NSF’s XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment). They are training students to understand high performance computing. I started as a trainee and now I’m mentoring younger students for computing competitions. I’ve also given webinars about how high performance computing is relevant to my project. It’s a cool resource to be involved in. I love finding ways to bring the computing community together.”

Reflecting on her time at UNC, Grace notes that several of the programs designed specifically for graduate students were instrumental to her success, especially the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD ) program through which Grace bonded tightly with other classmates students forming a critical network of support. “First Year Group was good too – I met people from other disciplines and that gave me exposure to topics I would not normally be exposed to. And it impacted how I presented my research because I had to give my talk to a mixed audience using layman’s terms, and that has been useful when I’ve given conference presentations. I won a poster presentation at one of the annual XSEDE conferences and the comments were that my poster was really accessible. I definitely learned how to communicate to a diverse audience in First Year Group.”

Grace graduated in 2015 is currently a computational biology scientist at Blueprint medicines in Cambridge, MA where she is working to identify new genomics targets for clinical trials. She has two pieces of advice for new students. First, don’t go by reputation only; find things out for yourself. “People told me Chuck was so famous and busy that I’d never see him and that just wasn’t true. He was always available to me and was in lab a lot. If I’d listened to other people I might not have even tried his lab out!” Her second recommendation is to follow her motto: “Work hard, play hard. I tell everyone that. When you are stressed you are less efficient. It’s better to get away; sometimes that is when a solution to your problem will come to you. So if you have a long night in the lab, treat yourself to coffee or going out with friends. You have to have balance.”