Secret Lives of Scientists: Gil Alterovitz

Mar 5th, 2011 | By Vicky Zhou | Category: Current Issue, Features, Secret Lives of Scientists

As Dr. Gil Alterovitz diligently analyzes protein interaction networks from the comfort of his trusted laptop, few would guess that the Harvard Medical School/MIT assistant professor leads a secret life as a competitive ballroom dancer. By weekend, Alterovitz dons a crisp black tailsuit and leads rhinestone-studded ladies around a crowded ballroom, lined with professional judges and cheering spectators.

Although his double-life is no secret, one of his research assistants, Aaron Merlob, was unaware for several months. Upon discovering his PI’s passion, Merlob was fascinated, as he was also a salsa dancer.

Alterovitz competes with Nelly Martin at the Boston University Terrier Dancesport Competition in 2011. Courtesy of Ron Hoffmann.

Alterovitz competes with Nelly Martin at the Boston University Terrier Dancesport Competition in 2011. Courtesy of Ron Hoffmann.

Alterovitz began ballroom dancing in 2008, and currently represents the MIT Ballroom Dance Team in collegiate competitions throughout New England. He started ballroom as a fun way to exercise; he recalls how gym regimes would “inevitably stop.”

Even Alterovitz could not predict that his “exercise” would grow into a consuming passion. Today, he competes in the International Standard and American Smooth styles. “Competing is like a final exam in some ways,” he explains. “You retain knowledge better and get feedback from the judges.” Alterovitz also reflects on the added benefits of improving body awareness and discovering one’s own learning style.

Alterovitz notes that ballroom has been “useful for networking.” He reveals that the second floor of the New Research Building (where his office is located) has at least four ballroom dancers. He counts off numerous other former students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are former or current members of the dance team. There are “definitely lots of people in informatics and biology” involved in ballroom dancing, he observes.

Alterovitz’s dance network even led to the hiring of his first research assistant. He reminisces how a simple Facebook post resulted in a successful application from his former dance partner’s friend. He later discovered that this same friend had videotaped him at a previous competition.

Given the networks that Alterovitz highlights within the dance community, it is no coincidence that his research is on networks, specifically “networks combining empirical data with knowledge-driven methods to understand complex traits.” Along with three post-graduate researchers and numerous collaborators, he studies protein interaction networks, links knowledge networks from different fields, and links behaviors with genetics. For instance, one current project aims to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that can predict nicotine dependence.

Alterovitz owes his PhD and postdoctoral training to two long-time mentors, Dr. Marco Ramoni and Dr. Isaac (Zac) Kohane. Sadly, Ramoni recently passed away at the age of 47. Alterovitz remembers that Ramoni also led a “secret” life: he was an avid saxophone player who often invited people to watch him play jazz. He calls Ramoni someone who truly “lived life to the fullest” and considers him an inspiration for his own life.

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