UB biology PhD student wins prestigious Microsoft Research fellowship

The Ada Lovelace Fellowship covers tuition and fees for three years for students who are members of underrepresented groups in computing

Release Date: January 17, 2019

Head shot of Izzy Starr
“"I am thrilled to receive the Ada Lovelace Fellowship, as it has already opened doors to collaborative opportunities, and will provide me with the financial freedom to focus on my doctoral research and give back to my community by promoting marginalized perspectives in academia and STEM.”
Izzy Starr, PhD student in biological sciences
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Izzy Starr (they/them/their pronouns), a UB PhD student who uses computing to study how microbes living on human skin impact immunity, has received a prestigious fellowship from Microsoft Research.

The Microsoft Research Ada Lovelace Fellowship is a new fellowship for Microsoft Research, and Starr is one of the first five students to receive it. The award “aims to increase the pipeline of diverse talent receiving advanced degrees in computing-related fields by providing a research funding opportunity for doctoral students from groups underrepresented in computing.”

The fellowship covers PhD students’ tuition and fees for three academic years and provides an annual $42,000 stipend during those years to assist with living expenses and conference travel. Fellows also receive an invitation to a two-day PhD summit at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington lab, where they meet with Microsoft researchers and other students and share their research.

Starr, a recipient of an Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship, is a PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“I am thrilled to receive the Ada Lovelace Fellowship, as it has already opened doors to collaborative opportunities, and will provide me with the financial freedom to focus on my doctoral research and give back to my community by promoting marginalized perspectives in academia and STEM,” they said. “I am eager to stitch together anthropological, computational and genomic threads into tapestries of new knowledge about human immunity.”

“Izzy’s research represents the best of the interdisciplinary intellectual approach in our laboratory and the comprehensive interests of the biology department,” said Omer Gokcumen, PhD, Starr’s PhD advisor and an assistant professor of biological sciences. “Izzy combines sophisticated computational approaches to investigate the complex interactions between our immune system and the good and the bad microbes living on our body. I am very excited both about Izzy's exciting project and the new connections with the scientists at Microsoft.”

Starr uses computational modeling to investigate how microbes that live on the skin influence how a person’s genes are expressed, and how that in turn affects immunity.

As Starr explains, human skin and the microbes that inhabit it evolved together, and the makeup of the microbiome on skin — and changes to this microbiome — can influence a person’s immune response. The focus of Starr’s current work is psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune condition that can cause symptoms such as cracked skin, which can lead to increased exposure to microbes.

Down the line, this work could open opportunities for customized treatments for people with psoriasis or other diseases.

“A better understanding of people’s microbiome and how the microbiome relates to immunity could lead to customized medicine,” Starr said.

“I’m really interested in the evolution of immunity,” they added. “My research now is looking at skin as an immune barrier and its relationship with the microbes on the skin, and how those have co-evolved to create an immune response. So I’m interested in evolution. I like modeling. I like bioinformatics. I really like computers. I’m combining all of these interests to do research that I hope will answer some important questions about evolution and human health.”

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