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Sheila Reynolds

A Winding Road Leads Sheila Reynolds to the Frontiers of Biotech Research

Sheila Moore Reynolds took a graduate-level EE course at UW in 2001 to test the waters for possible application to a doctoral program. Pregnant with her second child, and wearing clothes sprinkled with glitter from her toddler’s daycare craft activities, she felt out of place. Associate professor Jeff Bilmes remembers other things — a woman with an exceptionally creative mind who asked great questions, offered novel solutions to problems, and scored the top grade in his signal processing class. But another two years passed before Reynolds could carve out enough time in her life to enroll as a full-time doctoral student.

Soft spoken and charmingly modest, Reynolds gives no external signs of engineering geek or type A overdrive. Her route through academia and into a promising research career didn’t follow the usual straight-line path, but meandered along byways leading to chance opportunities. Even her entry into the world was unusual, as she was born in the Belgian Congo during a post-independence rebellion that prompted evacuation of her family when she was just a few days old. She mostly grew up overseas as her diplomat father was posted from Korea to the Ivory Coast and Italy, where she attended high school.

The subject she always loved most was math. “When I was 5 years old I wanted to be a banker when I grew up so I could add numbers all day long,” she recalled. By high school Reynolds appreciated math for its clarity and right or wrong answers. Ironically, a fortuitous mistake in filling out the wrong application form put her in the engineering college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in EE.

“I discovered that I enjoyed signal processing because it was basically applied math,” Reynolds said. After graduating in 1986 she worked for six years at a technology applications company in Virginia and also earned her MSEE in an evening program. A few years later she and her husband, a software engineer, moved to San Diego to take positions at Qualcomm, where they worked nonstop for nearly three years and barely had time to enjoy the paradise-like weather.

A colleague there started a wireless company in Seattle and invited them to join him. “We thought it would be exciting to work at a startup and get rich,” Reynolds laughed. Although they didn’t expand their bank account, their family grew with the arrival of daughter Amelia, now 11. Reynolds quit her position to focus on motherhood, but eventually her husband suggested she go back to school — hence the trial UW course. The birth of her son, Sean, put those plans on hold.

By autumn 2003 her husband was working from home for a new startup and able to take on more child-care duties, offering Reynolds the chance to enter the EE doctoral program. Still enthused with speech and signal processing, she worked in Jeff Bilmes’ lab, but explored other areas too. She overheard some students talking about an elective in computational biology, and thought that sounded cool. “The mathematical concepts were all familiar and the new application area really got me excited,” she said. That set her on a path exploring the application of signal processing methods to pattern recognition problems in genome analysis.

Still, the graduate school grind combined with raising children was exceptionally tough. “Every once in a while I’d go talk to Eve Riskin (EE professor and CoE associate dean for academic affairs), and she would pep me up,” Reynolds said. At one particularly low point in 2007, though, she decided to quit school.

“I felt like a lousy graduate student and a lousy mom, but I couldn’t face Jeff, so I sent him an email with the news, saying “I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time,’” Reynolds said. “I thought he would agree and also that my daughter, then age 9, would be happy to spend more time with me, but she said the most amazing thing — that I shouldn’t quit because I’d already worked so hard. Jeff and Bill Noble also told me they had no doubt I could do it.’”

Fortunately for all, she did. Several years earlier Reynolds had introduced Bilmes to Bill Noble, associate professor in the Genome Sciences department, who became her second dissertation advisor. The two eventually launched a major research collaboration uniting speech and language analysis technologies with bioinformatics to develop graphical models for analyzing peptides. They won a multi-million-dollar National Institutes of Health grant for research that could lead to early identification of disease susceptibility and potentially to new drugs for prevention and treatment.

“Sheila’s interests brought us together and prompted this collaboration between EE and Genome Sciences,” Bilmes said. “It’s exciting research that should keep us busy for another 10 to 20 years. Sheila’s insights have been incredibly useful and she has come up with many ideas for research directions.”

Reynolds graduated in December and will go through the hooding ceremony in June, but finds it hard to put into words just how much that means to her. She sometimes still thinks “Who me?” when she receives an email addressed to Dr. Reynolds.

She now holds a postdoctoral position at the Institute for Systems Biology not far from the UW in the Fremont neighborhood. Founded by the famed Leroy Hood, ISB analyzes genomes and the complex interactions of genes, proteins, and biological pathways causing disease and ranks first in the US and third in the world in number citations for its research papers — a mark of significant impact.

At ISB Reynolds is working on a huge National Institutes of Health, multi-center project to create an atlas of the cancer genome. It involves analyzing genetic data from the tumors of thousands of cancer patients to determine not just mutations, but to analyze disease from a whole systems perspective.

“Long before I started down this particular research path, my father passed away from cancer, so doing this research is especially meaningful to me,” Reynolds said. “I love working at ISB and hope to get a permanent position when my post-doc ends.”

This unassuming, almost accidental engineer–scientist has her feet firmly on the ground, but surely looks like a rising star to those around her. “Sheila is so creative and comes up with so many novel ideas that I expect to see her do great work,” Bilmes said.

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