Dr Sofia Startceva

Age: 31

My research areas: Computational Biology, Biomedical Modelling, Statistical Inference; from single gene expression kinetics to large-scale network inference

Research period at the TU Darmstadt: July 2020 to March 2024
(Humboldt Research Fellowship Programme for Postdocs since July 2021; start of sponsorship since April 2022)

Dr Sofia Startceva

My field of research is fascinating. The best way to explain it to non-specialists is…

My field of research is at the intersection of biophysical modelling and high-dimensional statistical inference, and the goal is to learn previously unknown details about the processes involved in gene expression and regulation at the scale of the whole cell. It is fascinating how we are getting closer to understanding how exactly our cells function and malfunction, and how this could result in better therapies for such diseases as cancers and neurodegenerative disorders.

What research questions are you currently working on?

I am now working on reconstructing a behaviour of a gene network over time from scRNA-seq data. The challenge is that each data point comes from a different cell, so two data points might be similar in one tightly coupled gene cluster but differ in genes that are only loosely connected to this cluster. To address this, I reconstruct the behaviour of functional gene clusters separately and then combine this information to describe the behaviour of the whole gene network.

My most important success in research to date is…

My main success in research to date is that, during the PhD studies, I managed to demonstrate how, during gene expression, not only that the mean and the variance of molecular distributions can be regulated independently from each other (which was shown previously), but also that the higher moments, skewness and kurtosis, can be regulated independently from both the mean and the variance. I now use this knowledge when modelling gene expression noise in my current project.

Questionnaire for the host

Professor Dr Heinz Koeppl

Guest of: Professor Dr techn. Heinz Koeppl

Department: Electrical Engineering and Information Technology / Biology

What did you appreciate most about your guest, or what is it that impressed you most favorably…

Having studied biophysics in Russia and having done a PhD in Finland in Computational Biology, Sofia has already an international and interdisciplinary mindset. When serving on her PhD committee I came to know her as a person who thinks carefully and deeply about scientific problems and who has a very humble attitude. For my taste, those people are best to work with.

You, your team, and TU Darmstadt benefit from your guest’s…

Sofia brings in a lot of expertise in biophysical models of gene regulation. Her AvH postdoctoral project is dedicated to statistical approaches for the reconstructing of causal relationships between regulatory molecules inside cells from high-dimensional data. Usually, and that is also true for my lab, the field of biophysical modelling of regulatory actions is disjoint from those statistical, high-dimensional approaches. Sofia has the right expertise to tackle the sweet spot in between these two areas where you exploit biophysical constraints to obtain better statistical reconstruction methods.