Computer Science Undergraduate Relishes Research Challenges

Posted: April 5, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: April 2, 2010 at 2:38 pm

By Rashad Mulla

Junior Beenish Jamil. Creative Services photo

In her short time at Mason, computer science professor Amarda Shehu has not met anyone like Beenish Jamil, an undergraduate research assistant in the professor’s computational biology lab. Jamil, a junior majoring in applied computer science, works alongside three graduate students.

Jamil’s research has earned her national recognition. In a challenge pitting her against student researchers from top-flight schools all around the country, she recently won honorable mention from the Computing Research Association’s 2010 Undergraduate Researchers Awards competition. In October 2009, she prepared a poster describing her research on ribonucleic acid (RNA),which was displayed at the Grace Hopper Conference, a program of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, held in Tucson, Ariz. Jamil was unable to attend the conference, but Shehu says her protégé’s recognition is well-deserved.

“It is very exciting to see a female undergraduate like Beenish not only succeed in the often male-dominated computer science curriculum, but actually be recognized for her research contributions,” Shehu says.

One particular project that has taken up much of Jamil’s time is on RNA three-dimensional structure prediction using the Metropolis Monte Carlo algorithm. The project is designed to find a faster and easier way to predict RNA structures, which are made up of various nucleotide molecules. Experts in the field have been searching for ways to ease this prediction process for years.

Professor Amarda Shehu with Jamil, who works in Shehu's computational biology lab. Creative Services photo

“Very little is known about the gamut of biological functions of RNA molecules,” Shehu says. “Recent research in my lab, led by Beenish, aims to shed some light on what three-dimensional structures can be predicted from the sequence and secondary structure information of novel RNA molecules.”

Jamil used her own formulas to help her fulfill her research goals. To find ways to predict RNA structures, she employed the Monte Carlo algorithm, used widely by scientists in her field, and modified it to fit her needs.

According to Shehu, this level of expertise in undergraduate research is uncommon, but Jamil relishes the challenge.

“The challenge posed by complicated research questions is actually the most attractive part about them for me — the more challenging they are, the more interesting and fulfilling the research itself is,” Jamil says. “In addition, these research opportunities give me exposure to my field of interest in a way very few undergraduate-level courses can.”

Jamil will spend the summer at Texas A&M University, where she was accepted into the Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Eventually, she plans to go to graduate school. Her research experience this year will help her along the way, she says.

“This research experience will be greatly beneficial to me in my graduate studies as well as on my research project this summer,” she says. “The research methods and techniques I’ve learned will be reliable tools that I can use in any future research projects I work on.”

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