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Bleker Wins Award for Extraordinary Professional Promise

Picture of Computer Science student Carissa Bleker

Carissa Bleker

Computer Science student Carissa Bleker was awarded the 2020 University of Tennessee Chancellor’s Award for Extraordinary Professional Promise in Research. A member of Professor Michael Langston’s laboratory for the last four years, she made seminal advancements in several computer science and data science domains. Diverse and notable examples include:

  • Graph Theoretical Thresholding. The goal of thresholding is to discover important and often latent big-data relationships. Bleker has developed suites of novel spectral and combinatorial algorithms well suited to this task, and helped match them to different types of high throughput data. Her approach eliminates much of the guesswork previously used.
  • Analysis of Magnetoencephalography Data. Neural activity in the brain produces electrical signals and an orthogonally oriented magnetic field. Magnetoencephalographic sensors can measure minute changes in this field’s strength and direction, and can therefore help record and interpret neural activity. Bleker has devised methods that construct sensor graphs of the brain, and that associate brain signal characteristics with behavioral and psychological phenotypes. This work is unlike any that has been done before. Its implications for human health are manifest.
  • Core Protein Identification. A core protein is one that plays a major structural or functional role in a large molecular complex of which it is part. Focusing on Escherichia coli, Bleker has developed new, data-driven methods that can determine the core proteins of each bacterial phylotype. These results have numerous potential applications in both clinical and agricultural settings.

Bleker successfully defended her doctoral dissertation on May 5th, 2020. Titled “Data-Driven Analytics for High-Throughput Biological Applications,” her work focused on systematic techniques for thresholding biological data, and the application of data science principles to basic problems of brain network analysis and prokaryotic metabolism. The approach she took throughout was to develop general-purpose methods that are data-driven and without bias. Her work demonstrates how algorithmic development can be applied to amplify human understanding and move it well beyond the scope of current knowledge. Her doctoral committee consisted of Dr. Michael A. Langston (advisor and committee chair), Dr. Nina Fefferman, Dr. Audris Mockus and Dr. Russell Zaretzki.

Picture of computer science student Carissa Bleker, standing outside with a giraffe standing behind her.

Carissa Bleker

A native of South Africa, Carissa began striving toward her PhD as a Bredesen Center scholar in 2015. During her career at the University of Tennessee she worked as a graduate research assistant and collaborated with a variety of research scientists, most notably Dr. David Ussery at the University of Arkansas School for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Arkansas, and with Dr. Roozbeh Rezaie at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

Carissa will join the Department of Biotechnology and Systems Biology at the National Institute of Biology in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as a post-doctoral fellow under the supervision of Dr. Kristina Gruden. “She will be sorely missed,” said Professor Michael Langston. “She brought new data science tools to our lab and has been a constant source of alacrity, inspiration and good humor. Nevertheless, we are delighted to see her join the workforce and wish her every well-deserved success!”