Christine Heitsch

2019 recipient of the Mathematics Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement

Christine Heitsch received her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics with Highest Distinction and Magna Cum Laude in 1994 from the University of Illinois. She received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2000. She is a Professor in the School of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is Director of the Southeast Center for Mathematics and Biology, an NSF-Simons Research Center for the Mathematics of Complex Biological Systems.

Professor Heitsch leverages mathematics, especially geometric combinatorics, to answer questions in molecular biology on the secondary structure of RNA. Her work on theoretical aspects of RNA structure and its analysis by discrete mathematical models, as well as computational and experimentally testable aspects of RNA challenges, have established a novel interdisciplinary research program in this area.

Dr. Heitsch's research focuses on different representations of geometric features of RNA such as base pairing, branching, and the distribution of low-energy states towards the goal of predicting RNA secondary structure. She has developed sophisticated approaches based on probability and geometric combinatorics that quantify the extent of sub-motifs in RNA secondary structure. These approaches are especially valuable for large RNA molecules, such as viruses, where functional behavior depends on the entire energy landscape. Another area of her research involves the analysis of branching patterns in RNA secondary structure. Such work has potential for understanding the limitations of thermodynamic optimization methods for predicting RNA secondary structure.

Professor Heitsch has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, Burroughs Welcome, and the National Science Foundation. The Southeast Center for Mathematics and Biology, where she serves as Director, has recently been established with support from NSF and the Simons Foundation. 

Professor Heitsch is also a dedicated teacher and a mentor to young scientists. She regularly teaches Analysis and Algebra courses including a key Fundamentals of Mathematical Proofs course in the undergraduate program at Georgia Tech, that she devised.  Besides reshaping the undergraduate program, the course serves as a recruitment tool for new mathematics majors. Professor Heitsch also serves as Associate Chair for Postdoctoral Mentoring at Georgia Tech, leading a comprehensive professional training program in interdisciplinary research for postdocs.

In the words of one of her nominators: “In the 24 years since Christine Heitsch's undergraduate degree at Illinois, she has devised an entirely original research program [which has become] the encompassing vision for a nationally important Mathematical Biology center … she is re­shaping what is possible to do as, and more importantly, who and what it means to be, a mathematician.”