Mar 2, 2018

Alumni Spotlight: Rehan Akbani at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Dr. Rehan Akbani is an associate professor for the Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“As a tenured professor at MD Anderson the bulk of my work involves research in cancer, along with some teaching and administrative components,” Akbani explained. “In addition, I give a few lectures in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS), which MD Anderson is a major component of.”

Originally from Pakistan, Akbani attended the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) straight out of high school and earned his Bachelors of Science with Honors (Summa Cum Laude) and Masters of Science in Computer Science in 2002 and 2005, respectively. He earned his doctoral degree in Computer Science from UTSA in 2009 with CS associate professor Dr. Turgay Korkmaz as his academic advisor.

“Once I graduated with a BS, I applied for direct admission into the [UTSA] PhD program because I wanted to pursue a research career path,” Akbani said. “I loved the environment, the warm weather, the friendly people and knowledgeable faculty, [so] I decided to stay there for my PhD.”

While Akbani specialized in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and network security during his doctoral studies, he now specializes primarily in the bioinformatics field of research with applications in cancer research.

“Although my formal training is in computer science, I used to read biology books on my own for the love of the subject,” Akbani said. “Bioinformatics seemed like the perfect juxtaposition of the two subjects and it was an emerging field of research at the time I graduated.”

Akbani currently leads several research projects and participates in various enterprises at MD Anderson.

“At the moment, I’m leading a ‘Pan-Gynecologic and Breast cancers” project whose aim is to study molecular similarities and differences among breast and gynecologic cancers [such as] ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancers,” Akbani said. “Those molecular similarities may eventually allow oncologists to apply therapies that are successful in one disease type to another disease type with the same vulnerabilities.”


Akabni’s study involves samples from over 2,500 patients and is the first of its kind, both in terms of number of patients and in terms of data points per patient. His team of researchers consists of over 60 major authors and several hundred consortium authors across dozens of institutions.

“The challenge of studying Big Data is that you have large matrices of numbers that you need to extract useful information from,” Akbani said. “My lab mostly uses R language because of its extensive statistics functionality, along with some Perl, Python, and Java. Data mining and machine learning techniques are crucial to the work.”

Due to the massive levels of data that his team works with, many of the computational tasks performed are CPU and memory intensive. At MD Anderson, Akbani and his team have access to high performance computing clusters and multi-core servers, which is vital for efficient parallel programming.

“I wanted to do research that would have a real impact, and this research felt like it was worth spending a lifetime on.”

Along with the skills acquired from his academic coursework, Akbani recalled valuable advice from one of his previous UTSA computer science faculty members that had a positive impact on his life.

“My CS professor, Dr. Neal R, Wagner, once told me when I was an undergraduate [that] whatever technologies you’re learning in school will become obsolete by the time you graduate,” Akbani said. “Therefore, we’re not training you to work in the field. We’re training you so that you can train yourself.”

Nowadays, even middle and high schoolers are learning how to program and fix technical problems on their computers. Employers will look for employees who can find solutions to the problems where many have failed to fix.

“I’ve taken that advice to heart whenever I need to approach my supervisor [about] a problem or hurdle,” Akbani said. “I always make it a point to either solve the problem before the meeting, or at least offer potential solutions.”

For those interested in pursuing an academic or research career in computer science, Akbani highly recommends developing excellent writing skills.

“Your research may have generated fantastic results, but if reviewers aren’t able to understand what you did and what the impact of your findings is, you will not get the grant or publication you’re looking for.”

Additionally, presentation skills are paramount to succeed in the workforce.

“Short 5-minute presentations are much harder to give than 30 or 60 minute presentations, because you need to convey your point quickly and succinctly without losing your audience,” Akbani explained. “I would encourage students to attend seminars or workshops offered at UTSA.”