Her Next Stage In Life Will Be Laced with Ivy

Rebecca Deek excelled in research at NJIT.

Rebecca Deek is on the fast track to scientific success: On May 17, she’ll graduate from NJIT in just three years. It’s not an easy thing to do -- to accelerate your path through NJIT -- and Deek did it with perfection. As it stands now, she has a 4.0 GPA.

If, academically speaking, one reaps what one sows, then her harvest is a grapevine extending from University Heights to Morningside Heights: Come fall, she’ll begin a master's degree at Columbia University in biostatistics, a burgeoning field that fuses biology and statistics, math and data analysis.   

At NJIT, she majored in biology at the Albert Dorman Honors College (ADHC), a school that enrolls some of the brightest scholars in the nation. And Deek is a definitive honors scholar, one who excels in the classroom and in the laboratory. Academically, she carried extra credits each semester and took several summer classes. Beginning her freshman year, she also worked on various research projects in neuroscience and resilient design. And it was there, in the labs, that she found her calling.

She intends, ultimately, to earn a doctorate in biostatistics and work as a research professor. She aims to develop statistical models that will help scientists deepen their understanding of human biology—models that will, moreover, help doctors combat disease and improve medical care.

In this interview, Deek discusses her time at NJIT, her passion for research and her plans for graduate school at Columbia. You can also watch this video of her.

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How were you able to finish NJIT in three years? Did you take AP classes in high school?

No AP credits. My parents advised me to instead take honors courses in high school. During my senior year of high school some of these honors courses allowed me to receive college credit for them through my local county college. I have also taken summer courses every summer, one session of winter courses, and I generally carried a heavy course load in fall and spring semesters.

Why did you pick Columbia University?

That Columbia is a great university with a top-ranked public health school made my choice easy. Columbia also has an active master’s program in biostatistics. I will be part of the program’s theory and methods track, which will train me, through coursework and research, for my next academic goal in life: to get a Ph.D.

How did you develop an interest in biostatistics?

My interest in biostatistics developed as a result of a computational neuroscience research project I did under the direction of  Jorge Golowasch, a professor of biology, and Casey Diekman, a mathematics professor.

Working with cells intrigued me, but while preparing for later stages of the research, I called upon my knowledge of statistics, a subject I had taken in high school. In so doing, I realized that my love of biology, along with my interests in data analysis and statistics, were the essence of a new research discipline: biostatistics. I took additional courses in statistics and biostatistics at NJIT and it soon became clear that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in biostatistics.

So math and biology are the subjects you love best?

Yes, I do love math and enjoy biology. The combination of those two disciplines have given us mathematical biology and biostatistics, two fields I look forward to making a career in. I have also always been interested in public policy and so I have decided to pursue advanced studies at the intersection of science and mathematics applied to a domain where biology, ethics and the law overlap.

Can you describe your research projects?

My first research project, mentioned above, was in computational neurobiology. It involved cell culturing and expanding cell lines as well as performing electrophysiology recordings -- or studying the flow of ions across the cell membrane. We were trying to understand ionic current coexpression, the linked expression of two or more ions on cells as a possible influence on the rhythm of the circadian clock.

Second, I did an informal research project borne from my interest in environmental issues and piqued by Superstorm Sandy. It started as a term paper on how biomimicry—humans imitating nature’s patterns—can inform designs for man-made structures. I did that for Professor Chuck Brook’s Society, Technology, and the Environment class. That causal project, though, evolved into a research project on resilient infrastructures under the direction of Taha Marhaba, a professor of civil engineering.

Why is this work important?

Regarding the circadian biological clock, it is important because it determines the sleeping and feeding patterns of most living things and helps them coordinate their biology and behavior with environmental changes in the day-night cycle.

In the resiliency project, I explored how human habitats, such as buildings and such structures, can become more resilient to phenomena such as weather events, seismic activities and climate change. I looked into how buildings can be modeled after the human skeleton, specifically the femur—the strongest bone in the body. For example, the structure of the Eiffel Tower resembles an upside-down femur bone.

What other aspects of NJIT did you enjoy?

If there is one thing that I will remember for a long time, it is how, from my first day, everyone I encountered in the Albert Dorman Honors College—faculty and staff—was genuinely interested in my well-being, personally, academically and professionally. The small, challenging and enriching classes that constitute the honors curriculum were a privilege; but they were also challenging and often prompted me to think deeper about the topics we covered. The honors colloquia were inspiring, but more importantly they broadened my perspective.

Even more significantly, the friends I have made here have also become an important part of my life. The ADHC afforded me the opportunity to become connected and involved. It offered me leadership roles, including serving as an author in the Technology Observer Magazine, co-editor of the Newsletter and an Honors Ambassador.

Is your ultimate goal to teach?

My ultimate goal is to become a professor and to develop my own research agenda. Working on clinical trials is a big part of biostatistics, but I’m attracted to developing areas of research related to genomics, computational biology and neuroscience. Also, because of my interest in math, I’d like to develop statistical methods that can be used by researchers in data-driven scientific discoveries.

By Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)