If Basheer Becerra had been told when he began his undergraduate career at Illinois State University’s School of Information Technology (IT) that one day he would attend Harvard University graduate school, he wouldn’t have believed it. However, since graduating in 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and mathematics and a minor in biology, Becerra is now conducting academic research and pursuing his Ph.D. in bioinformatics and integrative genomics at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biomedical Informatics.
“Bioinformatics is applying computer science and statistics to analyze complex data that’s derived from biological samples,” said Becerra. “By using computer science, we can discover more interesting biological insights than we could by hand.”
“The scholarships allowed me to focus on independent study, to do academic research throughout college and take on extra courses, and really helped me do what I needed to do to get a solid background in computational biology and build necessary qualifications for applying to internships and Ph.D. programs,” said Becerra. “They have definitely been essential to my success.”
Becerra is from El Paso, a town located about 20 miles north of Bloomington-Normal. He comes from a family of IT professionals, so choosing Illinois State for its close proximity to home and well-regarded math and science programs was a no-brainer.
Becerra is now two years into his Ph.D. program, which typically lasts about six years. After research rotations in computational oncology, neurobiology, and genomics, he decided to join Dr. Luca Pinello’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital where he studies genome editing.
“The next four years are about diving deep into a specific research topic and ultimately creating a thesis,” said Becerra.
During his Ph.D. program, Becerra will be using a powerful gene-editing tool called CRISPR to disrupt certain areas of human DNA to gain a better understanding of that region’s function. This research can generate a lot of data, which is where computer science and statistics come in handy and assist with the analyzation process.
“Specifically, we’re using CRISPR to understand the regions in our genome that affect blood traits to hopefully develop therapeutics for blood disorders. The main condition we’re studying is sickle cell disease,” said Becerra. “Sickle cell disease is due to malfunctioning hemoglobin, which is the molecule responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. People with this disease have abnormal hemoglobin that causes red blood cells to sickle into a crescent shape, which can cause clots and create severe pain.”
There are two types of hemoglobin—fetal, present in infants, and adult hemoglobin, which replaces fetal hemoglobin after infancy. Since the mutation that causes sickle cell disease is only found in adult hemoglobin, Becerra’s lab uses CRISPR to learn how to prevent the switch from fetal hemoglobin to adult hemoglobin. By doing so, they hope they can provide a new therapeutic option for patients suffering from sickle cell disease.
Becerra felt well-prepared for the advanced degree program at Harvard, especially because the School of IT emphasized the importance of not only stellar academic work but also seizing professional development opportunities. During his time at Illinois State, Becerra interned with State Farm and Advance Trading Inc. in Bloomington, Columbia University in New York City, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island.
Becerra worked closely with Dr. Nathan Mortimer, an assistant professor of cellular immunology in the School of Biological Sciences. Since he was at home this past semester as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Becerra returned to Illinois State as a visiting graduate student and enrolled in one of Mortimer’s classes. Becerra credits Mortimer with being a valuable mentor and for encouraging him to pursue his Ph.D.
“Basheer was a very good student to work with—I’ve worked with a lot of really good students at ISU—so I always like to encourage them to apply for their dream school,” said Mortimer. “I encouraged Basheer to go for the best programs that could give him that chance to learn, chance to be involved in cutting-edge research, and give himself a boost for the future.”
When he’s not in class or conducting research, Becerra works on his personal blog. Becerra has big plans for his blog, including providing academic guidance to other students, work-life balance suggestions, and self-help resources. He also hopes to introduce educational material on bioinformatics for computer scientists.
“A lot of computer science students don’t have the opportunity to be exposed to bioinformatics, even though their quantitative skills can help make huge advances in the field,” said Becerra. “I hope to create content to inspire more computer science students to pursue bioinformatics.”
Post-Harvard, Becerra hopes to lead his own scientific research team, whether it be in academia, in industry, or at a biotechnology startup.
Becerra emphasized that being able to study interdisciplinary subjects at Illinois State allowed him to gain a more well-rounded education and served as an essential step to getting to where he is today.
“The flexibility of the programs allowed me to take courses in different disciplines, and being able to do that during my undergrad was critical,” said Becerra. “If I had just been restricted to computer science, I would not have been able to develop the skills to do computational biology or get into my Ph.D. program.”