An assistant professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center, Sally Ellingson uses computational biology to decode DNA to help researchers better understand different types of cancer and develop cancer-fighting drugs.
Using machine learning techniques, researchers can add large amounts of biomedical data into the drug development process to determine what factors increase the accuracy and efficiency of predictions. Part of Ellingson’s research focuses on factors affecting predictions of “drug binding” – the process of drugs attaching to proteins. The better the predictions, the faster and safer the development process.
While doing this, she said, she became interested in pinpointing biases in the data that can affect the accuracy of the results.
“This has real world applications outside of drug binding predictions too. These methods can be used to better understand and handle gender and racial biases inherent in clinical datasets as well.”
When Ellingson started college, she planned to study art. She gravitated toward digital art because it seemed a more stable career option.
“I discovered I was better at the technical side and became interested in how computers work,” she said. “I started a computer science program which involved taking higher level math courses and fell back in love with math.”
Along the way, she became interested “in using these fields as tools to study important and impactful problems.”
She earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematical sciences and computer science, both from the Florida Institute of Technology. Then in 2014, she earned her PhD in Genome Science and Technology, a University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute program that combines the resources of UT and ORNL.
“I chose Genome Science and Technology because of the rotation program and access to scientists and facilities at ORNL,” she said. “I wanted to be more submerged in the biology side since it is where I was lacking in my training. I was able to join early and work in a biochemistry lab, get a diverse training in bioinformatics and computational biology, and have access to the fastest supercomputers in the world.”
Although she doesn’t teach, she mentors students and engages in outreach activities.
Ellingson lives in Lexington, Ky., with her daughter Kyla, now a high school senior. When she’s not working, she enjoys hiking, biking, and camping.