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Overton Prize Winner Jian Peng Finds Further Motivation in the Honor

5/9/2020 12:52:56 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

When Illinois Computer Science professor Jian Peng received a call from the International Society for Computational Biology recently, he knew exactly what it was about. Still, he took a minute to realize the gravity of the moment.

Peng earned the 2020 Overton Prize, recognizing independent investigators who are in the early to middle phases of their career. The selection indicates significant contributions to computational biology through research, teaching and service.

It's also one of the most prestigious awards in the computational biology field.

Jian Peng
Jian Peng

“The Overton Prize is a huge recognition and encouragement for me,” Peng said. “I didn’t even expect to receive this, actually. When I did hear from the committee, I was extremely humbled and honored to receive."

“Most of the past winners are key figures in the field. Being placed in that company has provided even more motivation to strive for further achievement.”

Going into his fifth year as a professor with Illinois CS, Peng’s devotion to Bioinformatics and Computational Biology is a lifetime in the making.

A son of two university professors in Yichang, Hubei Province, China, Peng spent his childhood with books and a computer by his side.

An inclination for learning grew from that experience and led to a few breakthrough moments that defined his career path.

The first was a successful undergraduate foundation in mathematical logic.

The second was learning under professor Jinbo Xu, who served as his PhD advisor at Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago. The two focused on research that investigated protein structure prediction and modeling using machine learning methods.

Building off that foundation, Peng worked as a postdoc at CSAIL at MIT and as a visiting scientist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. His work expanded to mutations on the genome and that impact to protein function in relation to human disease.

“I’m lucky to be doing this at a time in which advances in biotech allowed for more and more accessible data,” Peng said. “Now we have many ways to interrogate a biological system. We can try to mine this data and figure out a predictive model that assesses the correlations between those protein sequences, their function and their impact in human disease.”

Part of the reason Peng believes his research field has found success – embodied in recognitions like the Overton Prize, an NSF CAREER Award, a PhRMA Foundation Award, and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship – is because of where he is conducting this work.

Entering his fifth year with Illinois CS, Peng found a strong sense of collaboration and achievement from the moment he started here. He counts fellow professors Tandy Warnow and Saurabh Sinha as mentors who helped him understand the strengths of Illinois CS.

“I really appreciate the support from the department, and we have the best students,” Peng said. “They are very capable, completely engaged and they hope to solve some of these challenging problems we are investigating.

“So many people here are collaborative, and that means we can work together to drive solutions when we’re searching for answers.”

Peng will accept the Overton Prize and present a keynote presentation at the 2020 International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology. Now held virtually due to the spread of COVID-19, the conference will still occur from July 13-16.