Get to know… Jerry Jenkins

Jerry Jenkins’ education began long before he started school. We invite you to “get to know” Jenkins, a Tennessee native whose experiences on his family’s dairy farm triggered a lifelong passion for science.

What’s your educational background?
I received my B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Tennessee (Go Vols!), and received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a minor in applied computational mathematics.  My Ph.D. research was performed in collaboration with researchers at Emory University, and sought to identify small peptide inhibitors of the human thrombin receptor.  That was in the late 90s, when computers were fairly slow, so I developed a set of algorithms that drastically reduced the computational time for assessing peptides.

What sparked your passion for science?
Growing up on a dairy farm in the hills of East Tennessee afforded many opportunities to explore and cultivate an intense curiosity about the natural world around me. My father was a machinist and working alongside him instilled in me the need for precision and doing things properly the first time. The combination of curiosity and precision formed the spark that initiated my pursuit of science and engineering as a career, and continues to be the main driver.

How did you arrive at HudsonAlpha?
Prior to joining HudsonAlpha, I was leading a systems biology and bioinformatics group that primarily worked with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research on problems associated with antimalarial neurotoxicity and the development of next generation antimalarials. While I did not have any direct experience assembling genomes, after some investigation I became convinced that genomics and genome informatics had a strong future and I wanted to be part of it.  I just celebrated two years at the Genome Sequencing Center and am looking forward to many more.

What is your primary role in the GSC?
As genome analysis group leader, my responsibilities primarily consist of generation and improvement of de novo plant/algal/fungal/ eukaryotic genomes related to ongoing efforts in biofuels and bioenergy reserach.  I have been fortunate to be directly involved in the assembly and improvement of Eucalyptus grandis, Xenopus tropicalis, Citrus clementina and Capsella rubella, and I am currently involved in generating resources for the tetraploid switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

The most challenging part of the job is that no two genomes are quite the same. Often, tools that worked on one genome won’t work with another due to high polymorphic content or the presence of hard-to-sequence motifs (hairpins, simple sequence regions, repetitive content). Just when I think I have all the tools I need, something else comes along.

Why is this research important?
The work performed at the GSC has a broad impact at the U.S. Department of Energy. We strive to provide near complete information for genomes of relevance to the DOE, enabling us to closely collaborate with the DOE bioenergy research centers and others efforts for cellulosic biofuel development. Ultimately, efforts at the GSC will form a solid foundation for future studies in organisms of relevance to bioenergy in the US.

What other research areas are of interest to you?
I still follow developments in the field of molecular modeling biological systems. I am always amazed at the size of the systems I see in current publications. Today’s graduate students are able to routinely simulate systems that I was only able to dream about. I can distinctly remember obtaining accurate estimates of the temperature dependence of water viscosity with just 216 water molecules!

What do you like best about working at HudsonAlpha?
It’s got to be the people. As leaders of the GSC, Jane Grimwood and Jeremy Schmutz are focused on turning sequence data into solid scientific contributions, and have cultivated a culture of excellence within the GSC. We have outstanding facilities and resources, but the people of HudsonAlpha are what make it great.

Tell us something about you most people would be surprised to know.
I serve as a deacon and teach the newly married class at Fairview Baptist Church.  Christ said, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house.” My hope is that His light will shine through me at HudsonAlpha.