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Chris Thachuk

Biotech whiz eyes bright future

October 4, 2007

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Barry Shell

Chris Thachuk (above) learned something about himself while working as a co-op student at software companies during his undergraduate years at the University of Windsor. “I realized I did not want to write business software for the rest of my life,” says Thachuk, who is graduating this fall with a master’s degree in computing science from SFU.

As an undergrad, Thachuk loved reading books such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and became fascinated by the emerging field of bioinformatics—the application of mathematics and computer science to biology and genetics.

“I had a prof at U. Windsor who always used to say the most interesting work was when you could solve problems at the junction of two fields,” says Thachuk.

So he applied to the Bioinformatics Training Program for Health Research (BTP), a joint SFU/UBC graduate program administered by the BC Cancer Agency and funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research. And he was one of the 10 students offered positions that year, including a $19,000-per-year stipend.

The multidisciplinary program includes courses in statistics and genetics at UBC as well as molecular biology and computing science at SFU. BTP students take on three research rotations and Thachuk spent four months in Mexico working on the genetics of corn.

“Chris completed a master’s, but he’s developed more links than a typical PhD,” says Arvind Gupta, his senior thesis supervisor at SFU. “Everywhere he goes he ends up maintaining and developing contacts.” It has resulted in four published papers which is remarkable at the master’s level.

Thachuk’s master’s thesis was approved with no corrections, another unheard-of feat. It concerned clever mathematical techniques for specifying short chains of DNA oligonucleotides that spontaneously and correctly self-assemble into functional genes.

Thachuck worries about creating technology that could result in synthetic life forms. But he points to researchers like American scientist Craig Venter, who is developing synthetic organisms to produce bio-fuels that could potentially reduce oil dependence.

“There is indeed a risk of its misuse,” he says, but “not pursuing these types of technologies may be the more ‘disastrous’ decision, for reasons not yet known.”
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