Interdisciplinary research and the study of Physics, which can be defined in the broadest sense of the term as a search for principles behind the workings of both the inanimate and animate worlds, both fuel the motivations of Jack Edwards, a physics major in the University of South Florida (USF) Judy Genshaft Honors College. Jack became a recipient of a 2020 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in recognition of his research in the computational investigation of possible evolutionary mechanisms underpinning cancer progression.
When Jack joined USF as a freshman, he had an interest and experience in coding, and he wondered how he could use the computer to search for insights into things that fascinated him, among them geological formations, forest fires, and patterns in nature. He found an algorithmic system online that exhibited features of living cells—replication, evolution, and pattern formation. This remarkable observation that a computational algorithm was capable of generating a complex world from simple rules fascinated, and continues to capture Jack’s imagination.
Although biology was not an initial draw for Jack, he had heard about the Integrated Mathematical Oncology group (IMO) at the Moffitt Cancer Center. IMO is a group of researchers, few of whom had begun their careers in biology. They come from a range of fields, including mathematics, engineering, and computer science and now employ their diverse expertise and perspectives in the search for an understanding of cancer. Could tumor progression be understood as a system of cells which divide, proliferate and recruit other cells, as he observed in the algorithm online? This was the kind of question that inspired Jack to apply to Moffitt’s signature undergraduate research training program, SPARK (Summer Undergraduate Program to Advance Research Knowledge), which runs a national search-and-selection of young aspirant researchers every year.
This was the beginning of a journey into the cutting-edge of current thinking about cancer. Paired with his advisers Dr. David Basanta-Gutierrez and Dr. Andriy Marusyk, Jack was selected for the SPARK program three times, as he was making significant contributions to developing a computational platform called the Hybrid Automata Library (HAL). HAL later became Jack’s laboratory, where he grew and watched cells evolve and compete with other cells for space and resources, much like organisms in an ecosystem. That ecosystem, in this instance, represents the malignant, or about-to-be-malignant tumor. HAL is now used by nearly everyone at IMO.
As Jack began to make strides toward his first publication in iScience from the prestigious Cell Press, he had to make even bigger strides in learning evolution, biology, the terminology of ecology, and cutting-edge computational techniques, all outside of his native area of training, physics.
Jack credits his mentors in guiding and shaping his way through research. Of David Basanta he said “He is a fantastic teacher and showed me how beautiful evolutionary theory can be.” Of Office of National Scholarships Director, Dr. Sayandeb Basu, he recalls “He said to me once that the application process is the gold in the Goldwater. Working with him on this application helped me to fine tune my future plans and research interests.” The partnership between Marusyk, Basanta, Edwards, and Basu continues to inspire Jack as he prepares his graduate school applications. Jack also recently applied to the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, which falls as a natural continuation of the Goldwater year for many of USF’s Goldwater applicants.
Jack’s interest in nature and the great outdoors can be attributed to him being an Eagle Scout Patrol Leader. He also holds a statewide ranking in Florida for music performance on the upright bass. When not simulating cancer cells on the computer, Jack has participated in outreach activities with the Society of Physics Students at USF on their annual Physics Day at Busch Gardens. He has mentored a young female high school student who joined SPARK, and he was chosen by the office of Graduate Studies and Dr. Basu to be a peer mentor for a McNair Pilot Program, which began in January 2021. The McNair pilot program will simulate the programming of the Ronald E. McNair program, which prepares students from underrepresented minority groups who are financially disadvantaged, but high-achieving. The Goldwater Foundation seeks future leaders, and these facets made Jack an exemplar of the virtuosity the foundation seeks in their awardees.
Jack recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) Honorable Mention. He will soon begin a Ph.D. program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
Research Mentors: Dr. David Basanta-Gutierrez and Dr. Andriy Marusyk (Moffitt Cancer Center)
The Goldwater Scholarship Program, one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in the United States, seeks to identify and support college sophomores and juniors (by year of graduation) who show exceptional promise of becoming this Nation's next generation of research leaders in these fields. Selected students will receive a stipend for academic and research support for their remaining years as an undergraduate.
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Social Sciences such as Anthropology, quantitative sociology, computational social sciences and psychology are also eligible areas of application.