An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Erick Matsen ’96: Chasing radical scientific ideas

Photo by Chloe Collyer

December 2021

This past fall, Erick Matsen ’96 was among 33 researchers nationwide selected to share in a $300 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — the largest biomedical research institution in the country — to “chase their wildest scientific ideas.” Matsen, a mathematician and computer scientist, oversees a team of researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. His wild idea is to analyze huge data sets of protein sequences, using machine learning to create algorithms that can flexibly and continually absorb updated, real-time information and accurately infer the spreading of viruses — for instance, of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

I love science. I love learning about new things and coming up with new ideas. But I’m glad I’m using my brain for something useful.This idea of “optimizing the likelihood” of something in the future — as opposed to the current approach of looking at a sample from the past and determining how it changed, then extrapolating — is radical, enormously complex, and, potentially, a dramatic shortcut to tracking and reacting to the spread of a deadly disease.

Members of Matsen’s team include Lakeside alumna Anna Kooperberg ’17 and current senior Tanvi G. ’22.