Profiles in BME

T. Rhyker Ranallo-Benavidez

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a 1st year Biomedical Engineering PhD student currently rotating in Dr. Steven Salzberg’s lab at the Center for Computational Biology at Johns Hopkins University. I began my PhD work in July 2016. Though I am still in the process of refining the scope of my research, I am interested broadly in applying computational methods to analyze genomic data.

What does your prior academic background look like?

Prior to Johns Hopkins, I completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at the University of Oklahoma. Perhaps more surprisingly, I also completed a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies.

Three Degrees?!

Haha! I’ve always had a certain thirst for knowledge. I entered college with a lot of AP credits and I was at OU for five years. After taking so many classes, I had enough hours to meet the requirements for extra degrees. I decided that it was worth it to put in a little extra work since my interests already aligned in those areas. While there was a great deal of effort involved, I really enjoyed the journey.

What did you do after college? Were you able to use your Religious Studies degree?

After my undergraduate studies, I completed a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. This two-year program allows students the flexibility to take courses that fit into their own concentration of interest. For example, I was able to take classes such as Feminist Theology, Queer Theology, and even Algorithms and Complexity (as an elective in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science).

What was your biggest takeaway from Harvard Divinity School?

Many of my greatest memories to date were made at HDS. For example, I will never forget the religious services that were held by a different religious (or non-religious) group each week. Experiencing the divine as mediated through Buddhists, Catholics, Humanists, Muslims, Pagans, and others, was truly ineffable. Through the friendships I made, I was able to expand my knowledge of the world in all its beautiful diversity. Looking forward, I gained the perspective that whenever I engage in scientific research, it must be for the sake of others.

What led you from finishing divinity studies to an interest in computational biology research?

From 2011 to 2014, I conducted research in the field of mathematical biology with my mentor Dr. Jonathan Kujawa, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oklahoma. For my project, I focused on the genome rearrangement problem: given two genomes and a set of allowed mutations, what is the fewest number of mutations transforming one into the other. Modeling genomes as permutations and using combinatorial methods, I analyzed the number of genomes that are k mutations away from a reference genome (the k-slice) under common genome rearrangement models. Doing this research was the first time I was able to combine my passion and unique set of scientific and mathematical skills towards solving a problem and confirmed my desire to be a PhD student.

How would you describe your outlook on the research process?

From my perspective, conducting research requires the keen mindset of an explorer immersed within a bustling forest. Once aware of the fascinating and untold secrets hidden in all directions, the explorer promptly masters the techniques of former travelers and enthusiastically applies them to forge new paths. Along the way, frustrating impasses and unforeseen turns lead to sudden insights and the eureka moment that makes the toil worthwhile.

Have you ever experienced a “Eureka Moment?”

Yes, definitely! After 3 years, I was finally able to prove my conjecture that the size of the k-slice is given by a polynomial function on the number of homologous genes in the genome. I will never forget the moment where I had the final insight I needed to formally prove my conjecture.

What do you feel makes you unique from the rest of the scientific community?

As a gay Latino Christian, I often feel isolated from the rest of the scientific community. Thankfully, I have experienced affirmation and collegiality from my peers at JHU. Though there is plenty of improvement to be made, I am confident that I will have the opportunity to make a difference in the Hopkins community.

What challenges have overcome to get to where you are now?

One of the hardest challenges for me was learning to love myself and live proudly as an openly gay man. Coming out to my family and reconciling my faith with my sexuality was an arduous process, but I can honestly say that I am the happiest that I have ever been.

Furthermore, I am truly privileged to be alive at a time when a majority of citizens in this country support marriage equality. In fact, my husband Brandon and I (we married last June!) had the opportunity to be on the steps of the Supreme Court when they announced their Obergefell v. Hodges decision affirming the fundamental right to marriage for same-sex couples.

Congratulations on your marriage! Do you have any stories from your wedding or honeymoon?

Thank you! Brandon and I had a fantastic time exploring Iceland during our honeymoon. We decided on a ten-day self-driving tour around the island. Climbing glaciers, delving into ice caves, watching the gorgeous Gulfoss waterfall, and whitewater rafting was truly exquisite!

Last Question: What is your view on diversity and how do you think the scientific community needs to better engage with diversity?

Diversity is a scientific fact. All of us as scientists have a responsibility in ensuring that academia plays an active role in recognizing and celebrating the complicated amalgam of diverse ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, religious traditions, sexual orientations, ages, and abilities that make up the human experience.