Son follows Russ College faculty member dad into bioinformatics
When Josh Welch was 6, he knew that his dad, a computer scientist, went to work -- but what that meant, exactly, was something of a mystery.
"Somebody asked me what my dad does, and I said, 'He types,'" Welch remembers.
Josh's dad, Lonnie Welch, Stuckey Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of Ohio University's biomedical engineering (BME) master's program faculty, still does quite a bit of typing at work.
As Josh has learned firsthand over time, there is a lot more involved. In fact, Josh, now 20 and an Ohio University student majoring in computer science and piano performance, worked in his father's bioinformatics lab earlier in his collegiate years and collaborated with him and others on two research papers published online in 2009.
Collaborations within the BME program's labs aren't uncommon -- spouses have conducted research together and children of faculty working in other faculty members' labs -- but having a child in a parent's lab is a rarity.
"It's a real blessing to be able to do that with one of your kids," Lonnie Welch says.
By its nature, biomedical engineering is a collaborative field, merging biological and biomedical sciences with engineering. The role of Lonnie Welch's bioinformatics lab is to put advances in computer science to work, making sense of data now available to researchers.
Lonnie Welch remembers how his son's path to computer science began. "He started programming computers – Lego robots – when he was probably in sixth grade, middle school, something like that. Then he just took off from there. He just got books off of my shelf about C programming, C-plus programming, Java programming, and he just taught himself," Welch says.
Now, Josh works on bioinformatics papers such as "The word landscape of the non-coding segments of the Arabidopsis thaliana genome." He works as a bioinformatics intern in the research division at Diagnostic Hybrids, a biotechnology company in Athens, during school breaks. And he has hopes of earning a doctorate in computer science, most likely in bioinformatics -- his dad's field.
As Josh grew older, he had a better handle on what his dad's work entailed, he says. "But I didn't really understand it until I got in there and started working."
Josh's work in the lab, which typically employs five to 10 students, began during the summer before his freshman year.
"It was really fun -- I found the biological applications really interesting because a lot of computer science research is purely theoretical, but this actually has interesting applications," Josh says.
The first paper to which he contributed, "Word-based characterization of promoters involved in human DNA repair pathways," involved collaboration with a biologist at the National Institutes of Health at the Human Genome Research Institute in Rockville, Md. "He traveled together with me to visit that facility a couple of times with other people from my research group," Lonnie Welch says. "So, he got to get immersed in a really high-impact research project at NIH through this collaboration."
The second paper grew out of research conducted by an Ohio State biologist whom Lonnie Welch met through BME faculty member Sarah Wyatt.
The research featured in both articles is a development of bioinformatics methods, mathematical models, and computer algorithms that are able to search through genomes and discover elements in the genomes that are likely to have some kind of function, Lonnie Welch says.
Arabidopsis is a plant that Lonnie Welch describes as "the model plant organism. If you're talking to plant biologists, that's one that most of them are studying today." In medical research, it's the mouse; in plant biology, Arabidopsis.
"We have a number of biologists we are working with," Lonnie Welch says, "each of whom is doing basically the same thing: looking through portions of the genomes and trying to figure out which portions are functional and which portions are regulating gene activity."
At Diagnostic Hybrids, Josh's most recent project involved the company's development of diagnostics. "They asked me to produce a data base to store their data that they produce from their tests," Josh says. "And they also asked me to create tools that they can use to analyze the data, to eliminate labor-intensive data manipulations."
"I'm just really thrilled for him that he has that opportunity, but of course I'm sad that I've lost him as an intern in my lab," Lonnie Welch says. "But this is what he should do; it's what he needs to do to keep growing."
Josh anticipates that completion of his double majors will require five years.
"It's very intense at times, but it's nice having the variety," he says. "It prevents me from becoming a computer nerd. Also, the computer science training actually helps with my music because having analytical thinking skills really helps you to learn faster.
"Some of the thinking strategies transfer. In piano, if you try to think about details, you'll learn really slowly, but if you think about general concepts, you learn much more quickly. And that's the same type of thinking technique you have to use to prove theorems."
Josh sees his future career as being in bioinformatics but believes he will always be involved in music, as well. For several years, he and his dad, mother (Mary), and teenage sisters (Kristin and Sarah) have collaborated as The Welch Family, a bluegrass/gospel group that performs about once a month during the academic year, more often during the summers.
"With that, my wife and I are becoming less and less prominent, and the kids are becoming more prominent," Lonnie Welch says.
At a recent concert in Columbus, "we were all five on the stage," he says. "For the second half, my wife and I sat down, and the kids did the second half on their own. It just kind of happens naturally that way. It's our goal -- that eventually they become fully autonomous, independent, highly successful people."
Likewise, Lonnie Welch has seen Josh grow in the academic world.
"It's really gratifying as a parent to see he's getting his skills to the level where he can actually contribute to a research project and to the discovery of new biological knowledge," Lonnie Welch says.