Where Are They Now: Robert Vaughn, a Mathematician Who Wants to Give Back

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photo contributed by Robert Vaughn
Photo of Robert Vaughn

Former intern Robert Vaughn

For Robert Vaughn, an internship at NCI at Frederick during the summer of 2015 was when theory met reality, changing the course of his life.

While Vaughn had recently completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics, it was his internship with mentor Brian Luke, Ph.D., principal scientist, Advanced Biomedical Computing Center (ABCC), that showed him how to apply his knowledge to practical uses.

“It’s one thing as a mathematician to understand and appreciate theory, it’s another to be able to translate that into a real-world problem and make that fact useful,” Vaughn said.

Much of Vaughn’s internship involved performing statistical analyses for a paper titled “A Comparison of Genome-wide and Exome-wide Somatic Mutation Patterns in Tumors,” which he co-authored with six other interns, Luke, and Sarangan “Ravi” Ravichandran, Ph.D., a bioinformatics analyst in the ABCC. Vaughn’s other work included using Linguamatics, a natural language processing software, to filter search results and locate publications that could inform the ABCC’s projects.

“Working with the data sets for the paper was my favorite project,” he said. “[Getting] an inside look at what a statistician does was very eye-opening for me and piqued my curiosity, to put it lightly.”

That in turn influenced Vaughn’s decision to pursue a graduate degree in statistics instead of mathematical sciences, the other field he was considering. Luke further contributed to Vaughn’s choice and gave him daily crash courses about the statistical topics he would be studying in graduate school.

“Having such a dedicated mentor really made my internship a memorable one,” Vaughn said. “It was also one of the reasons I became so passionate about statistics and continue to study it.”

Vaughn graduated from the University of Memphis with a master’s degree this past spring, and he has already begun working on his Ph.D. He is currently a graduate assistant at the university, which includes teaching an introductory-level undergraduate math class for half the year, assisting professors with their classes, and tutoring at the university’s learning center.

Within three years, Vaughn hopes to complete his doctorate and begin working as a statistician. He enjoyed his first experience with Leidos employees (who operate the ABCC as part of the Frederick National Laboratory on behalf of NCI) and plans to apply with the company after finishing his degree.

Long term, Vaughn aims to challenge his knowledge of statistics, expand his career in the field, and mentor others who are interested in statistics—giving them an opportunity like he had.

“Having a good experience involving something you are curious about can be the deciding factor for what you decide to pursue,” he said.