Like most Bloomberg Distinguished Professors, computational biologist Steven Salzberg defines his work by the problems he finds fascinating—and which don’t necessarily fall within his usual field of study.
Salzberg began his career as an assistant professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, before his interdisciplinary curiosity led him to join the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s. He self-trained as a computational biologist, then moved to the Institute for Genomic Research, where he was one of only two computer scientists to work on some of the first genomes ever sequenced. In 2001-2002, he and his colleagues sequenced the anthrax that was used in the 2001 anthrax attacks. These findings helped the FBI track the source of the attacks to a single vial at Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland.
Salzberg eventually returned, in 2012, to Hopkins, where his work can be more quickly translated into clinical applications. As the director of the Center for Computational Biology, he leads a group whose research focuses on developing new computational methods and applied software for analyzing DNA with the latest sequencing technologies. He is also a member of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine.
“What we do looks like computer science, but we aim to solve problems in medicine and biological science,” he says. For example, Salzberg and his Hopkins colleagues are now able to take a sample from the site of an infection and use sequencing to determine what the infection is. “They don’t do it at your doctor’s office yet—but they could,” says Salzberg, who aims to develop computational methods to prove what is feasible and can quickly make its way into practice.
In addition, Salzberg teaches a new class on computational personal genomics, offered to students in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science. His lessons go far beyond the classroom, though, with his popular science blog, Fighting Pseudoscience, on Forbes.com reaching nearly 1.5 million people each year. His work at Forbes won the 2012 Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking.
Though Salzberg currently works across JHU departments, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorship, he says, gives him a new freedom—to worry less about grant writing and “focus more on the science and teaching, which is what I’m here to do.”
His research currently focuses on the development of new computational methods for analysis of DNA from the latest sequencing technologies, with an emphasis on the analysis of DNA and RNA sequenced with next-generation technology. He has developed and applied software to many problems in gene finding, genome assembly, comparative genomics, evolutionary genomics, and sequencing technology itself. This work builds on a history of contributions to gene finding algorithms, notably the GLIMMER program for bacterial gene finding as well as several related programs for finding genes in animals, plants, and other organisms.
In 2013, Salzberg won the Benjamin Franklin award in bioinformatics. In 2014 and again in 2015, Salzberg was selected for inclusion in HighlyCited.com, a ranking compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information of scientists who are among the top 1% most cited for their subject field and year of publication—between 2002 and 2012. He was also chosen for this list when it was first created in 2001.
He has authored or co-authored over 250 scientific publications. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a Fellow of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB), and a former member of the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH. He was the 2013 recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences.
Salzberg received his B.A. degree in English and M.S. and M.Phil. degrees in Computer Science from Yale University, and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Harvard University. He joined the Computer Science Department at Johns Hopkins as an Assistant Professor in 1989.