Nicolas Altemose is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.

Nicolas AltemoseNick Altemose excelled at nearly everything he tried in school. He earned 17 Advanced Placement credits in high school and was a top performer on his school’s Science Olympiad team. But it wasn’t until he began studying biology that he found a subject that truly fascinated him. “When we see the utter complexity of molecular biology and everything that’s responsible for human life, it adds so much beauty,” he says. “You begin to appreciate the complexity of our very existence.”

Despite his interest and talent, there wasn’t an obvious outlet for Altemose’s skills as a high school student. His parents told him they’d be happy if he brought home Bs on his report cards, but he pushed himself to earn straight As, and even asked teachers to pile on more homework. Altemose was headed down a high-powered path that his parents hadn’t been down: his mother, a homemaker from Bolivia, didn’t go to college. His father, a Pennsylvania native who is a manager at a company that makes medical instruments, began his higher education with vocational school, going to school part time and eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Living in the small southern California city of Temecula, Altemose didn’t have easy access to any of the state’s research institutions.

So when he arrived at Duke University in 2007, he jumped at the chance to take advantage of all the resources available to him. “I started applying to labs a month after I got here,” he says. “I just had to convince the scientists there that even though I lacked experience, I had potential.” His excellent academic record and enthusiasm were persuasive; almost immediately, he began work for geneticist and HHMI professor Huntington Willard at Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, where he did research for the rest of his college career.

That first year, Altemose absorbed everything he could—learning basic lab skills, helping with graduate student projects, and reading stacks of literature. He developed close connections with Willard and the graduate students who worked for him. “I completely clicked with them,” he says. “I felt that these were good mentors who could teach me what research was all about.”

During those early months, he read work by Harvard Medical School David Reich, a population and medical genetics researcher whose work linked a specific region of the genome to high risk for multiple sclerosis (MS). But that region coincided with a gap in the known genome sequence whose mysteries had not been revealed by the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. “[Mapping the genome is] kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Altemose says. “You start with the edges and the colorful pieces, and at the end, you’re left with the sky pieces, which are difficult to put together because they all look so similar.”

Willard’s lab took on the vexing challenge of trying to understand the gaps in the genome. Altemose and others in the lab went looking for islands of information within the messy repetitive sequences that characterized most of the gap. At first, Altemose was just trying to understand the region a bit better. But when he began taking a computational biology class, his skill set improved dramatically, and his work on the project became more meaningful and sophisticated. He was able to analyze enormous data sets to help come up with models of what the sequences contained and how they might be organized.

In the three years since the project started, the research team has uncovered a group of DNA sequences that dominate the gaps of the genome, and they have discovered new markers that will allow them to narrow down the region linked to MS. And though Altemose is disappointed to leave the research to pursue other projects, he can’t wait to see how the work proceeds. “I’m hoping that future groups are going to be able to take [the research] and run with it—to explore what these regions are doing,” he says.

Even as he spent long hours in the lab, Altemose wanted to have an impact outside of it. Remembering how much he had wanted to do research as a high school student, he helped found a science mentorship program, Scientifica, during his sophomore year. The program matches Duke undergraduates working in research labs with motivated high school students and prepares the students to work in Duke labs during the summers of their junior and senior years.

Altemose, who learned so much from his mentors in the Willard lab, discovered that he found switching roles even more rewarding. “It taught me to rethink the way I talk about my own project and how to explain it to people without a background in this area,” he says. “It also taught me about teaching.” He spent more than two years working with one student, Theresa Meyer, guiding her research projects and helping her with college applications and questions. “Now, she’s heading off to Princeton,” he says.

Altemose, 21, will defer his Gilliam fellowship for two years to pursue genomics research at the University of Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. When he returns, he expects to continue to work in genomics and focus on questions in basic science research, where studying even the tiniest strands of DNA can lead to enormous discoveries. “I want to be able to ask big questions, because that’s where I think I can have an impact,” he says.

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