Sriram Sankararaman, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Human Genetics, has been named one of four UCLA professors to receive the 2017 Sloan Research Fellowship.

The fellowships, which include a $60,000 grant for recipients to fund further research, are awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to early-career scientists and scholars who are “rising stars of the academic community” and “transforming their fields and opening up entirely new research horizons,” said Paul Joskow, president of the Sloan Foundation. Naturally, the application process is extremely selective – candidates must be nominated by either their department heads or senior researchers, and winning fellows are selected by independent panels of distinguished scholars on the basis of their research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Since 1955, Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to win 43 Nobel Prizes, 16 Fields Medals, 69 National Medals of Science, 16 John Bates Clark Medals, and numerous other distinguished awards.

Sankararaman received his Bachelor’s in Computer Science in 2004 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, after which he went on to pursue graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. Initially, Sankararaman was interested in more traditional aspects of computer science, like networking, but after taking a course in bioinformatics, he became captivated by the idea of using computation and mathematics to solve problems in biology and human health. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in Computer Science with a Designated Emphasis in Computational and Genomic Biology at UC Berkeley in 2010. In 2015, Sankararaman joined UCLA as an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Human Genetics.

After his Ph.D., Sankararaman began a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School alongside David Reich, an expert in population genetics, which is the study of how genes vary within and across populations. During this time, the first Neanderthal genome – basically, the complete DNA of a Neanderthal – had just been sequenced, a breakthrough that opened up a large number of questions about the relationship between present-day humans and Neanderthals. Much of Sankararaman’s early research focused on answering these questions using statistical and computational tools. For example, he developed a machine learning algorithm that could identify the parts of the human genome that have been inherited from Neanderthals, and he has since been using these inferences to study how genes inherited from Neanderthals have been shaping human biology.

Sankararaman’s current research interests focus on developing novel statistical models and algorithms to analyze large-scale genomic data with the aim of understanding evolutionary processes, such as inferring the history of a population. He is also interested in the statistical and inferential challenges that arise in making sense of genomic data, and in understanding the genetic basis of complex phenotypes – for example, identifying how genetic changes affect risk for a disease.

“A lot of what we’re doing here is trying to build a new set of tools to think about evolutionary processes. And by looking at patterns in our genomes, we can learn a lot – both about our past and where we came from, and also about the present,” Sankararaman said. “Learning evolutionary history gives us a way to understand biological function, for example, in efforts to discover genetic changes that increase risk for a disease.”

Sankararaman hopes that in the long run, his research will help in building a better set of tools to understand our genomes, and ultimately expedite the process of answering fundamental problems relevant to human health and biology.

Sankararaman is among the four UCLA professors and 126 scientists and scholars in the United States to receive Sloan Fellowships this year. With the announcement of this year’s recipients, UCLA is now tied for eighth in the United States among institutions with the largest number of Sloan Research Fellows.