“I’ve been interested in applying computation and engineering to biomedical problems since college, when I worked on computational modeling of neuronal motor control circuits [at Rice University].” After working in an experimental neuroscience lab and earning his masters degree at Cambridge University on a Churchill Scholarship, Ron Dror headed to MIT, where he worked with Professors Alan Willsky and Edward Adelson.
Dror’s thesis research focused on estimation problems in computer vision. But he also got involved with human vision experiments and computational analysis of gene expression data. Upon completing his PhD in 2002, Dror nearly accepted a faculty position, but decided instead to join David E. Shaw (a former computer science professor who founded a number of technology-based companies, including a quantitative hedge fund) to join in the effort to start up an independent research lab focusing on biomolecular simulations. He became the first hire in that group, which is now known as D. E. Shaw Research.
At D.E. Shaw Research, Dror’s work has focused on molecular dynamics simulations, which can serve as a computational “microscope” onto atomic-level phenomena that are difficult to observe experimentally—including protein folding and the structural changes that underlie protein function. Through a combination of novel algorithms and custom-designed computer chips, Dror and and his colleagues have accelerated these simulations by approximately three orders of magnitude beyond what was previously possible on the most powerful supercomputers, allowing the simulations to reach timescales on which biochemical events of interest frequently take place. He explains, “these tools can be used to understand the mechanisms of scientifically and pharmaceutically important proteins, such as kinases and G-protein–coupled receptors.”
“As the lab has grown to over 100 employees,” Dror notes, “I’ve maintained responsibility for much of its operation, including coordination of research that spans structural biology, algorithms, and high-performance computer architecture. The two most salient aspects of my job are interdisciplinary research and management. MIT prepared me well for both. The MIT faculty encouraged me to follow my interests regardless of departmental and disciplinary boundaries. Working with people in a variety of departments (including Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Biology, and even Civil Engineering, as well as both the “EE” and “CS” sides of EECS) also taught me—frequently forced me—to coordinate the efforts of people with very different backgrounds, which is what I now do every day.”