• Claire Benjamin

Derek Wildman: Computing genomes for reproductive health


More than 2 billion babies will be born over the next 35 years. As many as one in eight of these babies may be born prematurely, with increased risk for long-term problems like diabetes and mental health disorders. One researcher is working to improve their chances to reach full term—and thus their chances to lead healthier, even fuller lives.

To do that, Derek Wildman (a professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology) founded a new research theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) called Computing Genomes for Reproductive Health (CGRH). He is bringing together researchers from across the University of Illinois to understand problems with pregnancy that lead to pre-term birth and other complications.

These problems develop from complex interactions at many levels, from the societal issues down to intracellular interactions, and everything in between. To make sense of it all, his new research theme will use computational models.

“Think about all the things that can go wrong or right given that we have 20,000 genes and 100,000 proteins in addition to all the different organs and stuff,” Wildman said. “All these multi-scale interactions play a role in whether we develop pregnancy complications or not.”

But it’s not just about complications. Wildman is applying his expertise in the evolution of pregnancy and reproduction to help discover the underpinnings for pregnancy risk and resilience. “What gives people good pregnancies? What are those resiliency factors?” he said. “I am interested in the other side of the coin, the health side in addition to the disease side.”

Ultimately, he hopes to develop practical applications, like a test kit that will tell mothers if they are about to go into labor.

“I am not interested in being an ivory tower scientist that doesn't do anything of practical value for the rest of humanity,” Wildman said. “I am interested in interacting with the community and getting feedback about the health problems that need to be solved.”

Not surprisingly, Wildman was attracted to the land grant mission of the University of Illinois and the IGB’s mission: where science meets society. More than that, he appreciated the spirit of collaboration here. “People really know how to work together,” he said. “It is not every place in the world that that happens.”

Still, it was a tough decision for Wildman and his wife, Associate Professor of Psychology Monica Uddin, to leave Detroit—where Wildman had been a postdoc and professor at Wayne State University Medical School for 15 years—and join the faculty here in 2014.

“The main thing that convinced me were the people that I met,” he said. “I think there are a lot of really good people here.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.

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