Tim Van Baak Blends Cancer Research, CS, and Philosophy

Tim Van Baak's switch from BioChem to CS

Tim Van Baak

Growing up in Redmond, Washington, CS junior Tim Van Baak started programming on graphing calculators in sixth grade. By high school, he and his friends were building video games in C# with Microsoft XNA, and participating in online Ludum Dare hackathons. “The name is Latin for ‘to give a game’. You get 48 hours to create a game that follows the selected theme,” he said.

Although Van Baak enjoyed the computer science and gaming challenges, he wanted to pursue a different career direction. “Coming out of high school, I really wanted to go into cancer research,” he said. “I planned to be a BioChem major and I was told current cancer research is very computational, so I thought I’d minor in CS.”

Rice University was one of his top choices because of its very collaborative environment. “I heard horror stories about students sabotaging each other to beat the curve at other schools, but here it feels like everyone not only wants to succeed but wants everyone else to succeed as well. Especially in engineering, where we all suffer together,” he said with a smile.

Van Baak was also drawn to Rice University for its undergraduate research opportunities. “Before trying to go to grad school, I would need research experience and Rice is across the street from the medical center. Several people told me I could easily get research experience at Rice if I wanted it, and I began working in a lab at Baylor College of Medicine in my second semester,” he said. “We’re actually close to publishing a paper now on which I’m the first author.”

He has continued working in the Waterland Lab in Baylor’s USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center during the academic year and for the last two summers. His current research is focused on the use of computational tools to work with multiple independent data sets, identifying epigenetic loci with relevance to cancer.

Van Baak explained, “A genome holds the complete instruction set for the human body, but your cells don’t all do the same thing. Your muscles and your brain cells have to follow different parts of those instructions. Epigenetic mechanisms tell the cells which part of the genome to follow and which part to ignore. In cancer, for example, the tumor cells are reading the parts of the genome to reproduce when normally they shouldn’t. So looking at epigenetic mechanisms is a fruitful avenue of research for cancer because often what is wrong is not the instructions but the application.”

But research was only part of Van Baak’s educational experience and once he dove into his courses at Rice, his intended major and minor began to change. “For one thing, there is no CS minor at Rice,” he said. “Plus, my BioChem and Biology classes –well, they are terrible for everyone—and they were just not as fun as my CS classes.” When he realized his time and attention were consistently drawn to his CS courses and side projects, he flipped to a CS major and a BioChem minor by the end of his freshman year, then added Philosophy as a second major and dropped BioChem completely in his sophomore year.

His enthusiasm for philosophy began in high school, and he appreciates the flexibility of Rice’s distribution system to explore it. Van Baak said, “It permits me to be very free in the courses I take, which lets me explore something I’m interested in, and explore it even deeper when I find out it’s something I’m really into. With the distribution system, I don’t have to worry about running out of time. Since CS and philosophy are in different distributions, it’s easy to do a double major and only have to worry about one distribution category.”

He also appreciates the way CS is taught at Rice. “One thing I really admire about the CS curriculum is how it focuses more on the science of computers than the libraries or languages that are currently popular. It’s not about learning to program for your business overlords. You get to understand computers at a more fundamental level.”

At the same time, Van Baak recognizes that students need to find other ways to get practical experience using the core knowledge and said, “CS is not something you can ‘only do’ in the classroom.” Van Baak explained that in the first two years, students are given a lot of core knowledge about how computers work, data structures, and algorithms. “But there isn’t a lot of application in the classroom,” he said. “If you want industry skills, do it on your own time.”

He recommends students pick their own side projects so they know the background and what it is they want to solve or want to accomplish. “If you don’t enjoy programming in your spare time, CS is probably not for you,” he said.

One of Van Baak’s first side projects at Rice was created when two hackathons – HackRice and Ludum Dare – happened to overlap in his freshman year. “Since Ludum Dare is an online competition, I was able to sit in HackRice and work on my project for both hackathons at the same time,” he said. “My project had to match the Ludum Dare theme and it ended up being a game with interesting data visualization. When I submitted it for HackRice, it ended up winning the Two Sigma prize for Best Data Visualization.”

But Van Baak stresses the experience gained through side projects and hackathons is much more important than winning. His advice to new CS students is to build practical application experience in their spare time. “Take a weekend,” he said. “These days, there’s a hackathon nearly every weekend, so just do something. It doesn’t even matter if you make something that works, you gain experience learning to use it. If your project works out, put it on your resume. If it doesn’t, you still learned something about whatever you worked with. Maybe your jQuery webapp or Java program doesn’t work, but now you know more about jQuery or Java than you did before.”

He’s been building out his own resume as he looks for a software engineering internship. “Luay [Nakhleh] recommended we explore both research and industry,” he said. “I’ve done the research part, now I’m looking for an industry internship.”