Although Stephen Ramsey was fascinated with computers from the time his parents first brought one home in 1980, he initially pursued a career in astrophysics. Serendipity intervened to set him on a new career path in computational systems biology, and eventually landed him at Oregon State with a split appointment in computer science and biomedical sciences.
At age 10, computers were an amazing toy for him. “It was like magic,” Ramsey said of the Apple II+ he programmed to play songs and adventure games.
In high school Ramsey was exposed to the functional side of computers when he got a job at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois, where he worked on the data acquisition and control system for their accelerator.
“That really opened my eyes to software development as an engineering discipline, and the potential for using computers to advance science,” he said.
But it was a childhood dream to study the physics of the early universe, so he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematical physics at Brown University, and his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
It was a move to Seattle, Washington that ended up changing the course of his career. However, it was not completely serendipity — his wife had a notion that Ramsey would be interested in genome sequencing research that she encountered as a graduate student in genetics at University of Washington. She introduced him to Maynard Olson, one of the principal investigators in the Human Genome Project, and Ramsey was invited to join the lab as a post-doc where he had the opportunity to be involved with their ground-breaking research. He subsequently became interested gene regulation and worked at the Institute for Systems Biology and at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.
Stephen Ramsey enjoys outdoor activities; here, he is at the summit of Red Mountain in the Washington Cascades.
Working with large data sets to create mathematical models was familiar to Ramsey from his graduate work in observational cosmology, but the application was completely new, and he had a lot to learn about experimental biology. He felt very fortunate to work with top-notch cell biologists, immunologists and microbiologists who had the patience to train him in a new area.
“It was extremely humbling to go into a lab with no training or background and try to do experiments when all your peers are highly experienced and competent experimental biologists, but I really enjoyed all aspects of it from dissecting mouse aortas to working with lab instruments,” he said.
Ramsey was excited about the impact computational biology could have for biomedical applications and other areas of applied life sciences, and decided to focus his research on gene regulation. He specializes in analyzing data from multiparameter molecular (“omics”) measurements of cells and diseased tissue to help determine what transcription factors can trigger inflammation and cause conditions such as atherosclerosis.
The move to Oregon State has allowed him to expand professionally by working with students which is also personally rewarding for him.
“It’s just fantastic to see students work on research projects and help coach and facilitate as they pursue their research. That's a real perk to this job,” he said.
He and his wife (Elain Fu, CBEE) are also delighted to be able to stay in the Pacific Northwest where they enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking.
—By Rachel Robertson