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Breaking ground in cancer research

Rachael Hageman Blair's research will advance work using mathematical models to clarify networks of molecular traits from high-throughput data. Photo: School of Public Health and Health Professions


Published October 24, 2013

“It’s kind of a new frontier for systems biology.”
Rachael Hageman Blair, assistant professor
Department of Biostatistics

As someone who’s run 12 marathons in her life, Rachael Hageman Blair isn’t one to shy away from new challenges, whether it’s balanc­ing work with family life or breaking new ground in cancer research.

An assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics, Hageman Blair recently received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Mathematical Sciences to develop mathemati­cal models of skin and breast cancer metabolism. The project embeds probabilistic graphical models of gene networks into traditional deterministic models of cellular metabolism.

“It’s kind of a new frontier for sys­tems biology,” says Hageman Blair, who obtained both her PhD and MS in mathematics from Case Western Reserve University, and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from SUNY Fredonia.

“It’s exciting to me because this has never been done. It’s a high-risk, high-impact project that has the potential to bring us closer to personalized medi­cine and, in particular with this project, to leverage computational biology to make predictions about things we can’t measure,” she adds.

Hageman Blair’s research will advance the work that already has been achieved using mathematical models to clarify networks of molecular traits from high-throughput data. “Despite this progress, integrating diverse types of data remains a major challenge that has limited our ability to take full advantage of the wealth of post-genomics data for knowledge and discovery,” Hageman Blair’s research abstract says.

“This project addresses this challenge and represents a bold new direction in systems biology, which can be general­ized to model different biological sys­tems. A broader impact of this project is the software development, which aims to bridge the gap between com­putational and experimental biology by putting accessible tools in the hands of the biologist.”

A native of Orchard Park, Hageman Blair joined UB after work­ing as a postdoctoral associate at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, from 2007-11. In addition to her research work—she is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Biostatistics at Roswell Park Cancer Institute—Hageman Blair teaches a two-part hybrid course in the School of Public Health and Health Professions called Statistical Data Mining I and II.

She proposed the course series in sum­mer 2011 to fill a gap in the biostatis­tics graduate program, which until then lacked coursework in data mining. Expecting her second child that fall, Hageman Blair wanted to balance family life with offering the course, so she worked with Jeremiah Grabowski, SPHHP’s online programs coordinator, to develop the course.

The first four weeks of the course were strictly online. Twenty-two students enrolled in Data Mining I last year and included students from a variety of aca­demic departments, such as geography and industrial engineering.

In the spring, Hageman Blair oversaw Data Mining II, a classroom-based course that included a smaller group of students. She received teaching awards for both sessions.

In addition to providing much-needed curriculum in the school, the course has given Hageman Blair, who has two young boys, the flexibility to achieve a work-life balance. “I try to be present when I’m at UB and present at home. I check my phone at the door,” she says.