Kristin Bennett '85: Miner for molecules

By Denise Erdahl Ploof

Kristin Bennett ’85 is using math to predict the future. Her project is so impressive, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded her and two colleagues $1.2 million to support their research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The NSF grants recognize Bennett’s work on new mathematical programming approaches to machine learning and their application to data mining—the process of extracting knowledge from huge quantities of information. One ultimate payoff of their methodology is expected to lead to the rapid invention of new drugs for diseases.

In the automated-drug- discovery-via-data mining project, Bennett uses mathematical models to predict the bioactivity of molecules. The interdisciplinary research project, in conjunction with a chemist and an engineer, looks at various attributes of molecules and predicts which molecules have a greater likelihood of providing a desired biological response. These results eliminate the need to physically test all the molecules—which can be costly and time-consuming. “The aim is to target a few novel molecules with potentially attractive pharmaceutical properties that can then be tested further in the traditional way in the laboratory,” says Bennett.

An example of an application would be if a pharmaceutical company were to use the methodology to develop an anti-cancer drug that doesn’t cause nausea. Pharmaceutical companies typically spend a great deal of time testing thousands of molecules to determine which have attributes they desire. With Bennett’s methodology, the company would only need to test a limited number of molecules to determine whether they met predetermined criteria.

“The applications of data mining are incredibly diverse,” she adds. A bank, for example, could use it to predict which of its potential customers would default on their loan payments.

Bennett is an associate mathematics professor at Rensselaer. She graduated from Puget Sound with a degree in mathematics and computer science and later earned both a master’s and a doctoral degree in computer sciences from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Originally from Mercer Island, Bennett lives in Averill Park, New York.