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Intellect

Desired Outcomes: A Q&A with the student commencement speaker

Ashton Omdahl will represent the graduates as the student speaker at BYU’s Commencement exercises this month. Like many of his fellow classmates, he has accomplished a lot during his time at BYU.

Omdahl will graduate with a major bioinformatics and minors in both mathematics and computer science. Ashton has participated in different internship and research experiences while at BYU. In the summer of 2016, he interned with Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. On campus, he was a mentored research assistant in Dr. Stephen Piccolo Bioinformatics’ Lab where he designed, constructed, and implemented a computer tool to standardize breast cancer treatment datasets using a standard vocabulary from the National Cancer Institute.   

When Ashton is not studying or doing research, he participates in the BYU Triathlon Club and plays the violin in the BYU University Orchestra and BYU String Orchestra. 

University Communications’ intern Erica Ostergar recently met with Omdahl to discuss his BYU experience what advice he’d give to other students.

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Q: You have a variety of talents and interests: Honors Society, University Orchestra, Triathlon Club—not to mention your major in bioinformatics and your two minors. How do you balance your different areas of study and your extra-curricular activities?

Ashton Omdahl: Balance is an interesting word and a challenging aspiration isn't it. I think a great deal of my ability to pursue so many interests is partially from including a diversity of activities; for instance getting up at 5:45 am to exercise with the Triathlon club was hard, but it would jump-start my day and help me be responsible during weeknights (since I knew I was going to get up early the next morning!). And participating in Orchestra gave me a musical break from studying, letting my right-brain take a turn after doing left-brain work all day. This, coupled with diligent daily planning, made a big difference for me.

That said, learning to really "balance" was hard, and for a while, at BYU I missed out on social opportunities in exchange for my goals in music, academics, and triathlon. Over time, I learned how to find balance in developing cherished relationships with friends while still pursuing my other goals. Ultimately, for me, it boiled down to what I was most committed to, and that's what happened.

Q: You were also able to work in labs and present about your research over the past few years. Tell us about one of the coolest projects you worked on while at BYU.

AO: I'd say one of the coolest projects I got to work on was investigating virus genome mutation. We called the project "Probabilistic Analysis of Cryptic Viral Genomic Elements." Basically, I was hoping to predict the likelihood of "cryptic" or unknown regions of the viral genome becoming active through mutation, and anticipate where such mutations might take place in the genome. This was especially interesting because a predictive tool like this could potentially be used to evaluate a new viral genome and determine how likely it was that this virus appeared naturally or was perhaps engineered for some other purpose.

Q: Looking back on your BYU experience, what advice would you give to students still pursuing their degrees?

AO: BYU is an awesome place. Don't miss the unique opportunities it has to offer, especially the Religion courses, the beautiful outdoors and the wonderful people. Critically evaluate how you use your time and what your goals are, and be sure that your use of time reflects your desired outcomes (whether that is with classes or dating or anything else!). And don't take yourself or your peers too seriously—everyone is learning and figuring things out along with you. It will only make things harder and more stressful for you.

Q: I know you're off to grad school now. What else is next? What are you hoping to do with your BYU education?

AO: That's right! I'm just starting up at Johns Hopkins in their Biomedical Engineering PhD program. As far as the distant future goes, I'm still figuring that out. I'm hoping that my PhD research will drive medical innovations in precision medicine that I could scale-up and use to help people around the world. I'd love to travel with my future family as I have with my parents and siblings. Like we say here at BYU, I'm excited to "go forth to serve" in my new community with the powerful spiritual perspective I've received here.

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