Distinguished Alumna Delivers DeLisi Lecture

Returning to her alma mater and paying tribute to former mentors, Zhiping Weng (’97) shared insights from the first and largest international effort to characterize the functional elements of the human genome as she delivered the Charles DeLisi Distinguished Lecture on April 27. The first alum to receive the Charles DeLisi Award, Weng spoke on “Annotating Human and Mouse Candidate cis-Regulatory Elements in the ENCODE Project” to an audience of nearly 100 members of the Boston University community in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom.

Celebrated in person for the first time since 2019, the annual DeLisi award event recognizes researchers with extraordinary records of well-cited scholarship, senior leaders in industry, and inventors of transformative technologies. Weng spent 14 years in the BU College of Engineering’s BME department, first as a doctoral student and then as a professor, before she joined the University of Massachusetts Medical School to be the founding director of its program in bioinformatics and integrative biology.

“I can’t think of a better first alum to give the DeLisi Lecture,” said ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen in his introduction. Lutchen was the chair of BME during Weng’s time here.

It was at BU that Weng began her ongoing role as a principal investigator in the ENCODE consortium. Short for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, ENCODE is a global effort to understand how the humane genome works. From the project’s voluminous data sets, Weng’s team has developed a registry of more than a million human and mouse candidate cis-regulatory elements.

“If we can understand these regulatory elements in a spatial and temporal manner, we can understand what makes us different and what makes some of us susceptible to different diseases and hopefully contribute to the correction of these problems,” said Weng, who is also the Li Weibo Chair of Biomedical Research and a professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the UMass Medical School.

Using computational biology, Weng and colleagues identified 926,535 regulatory elements for human and 339,815 for mice, and they have made the data available to the scientific community through a searchable online resource. This tool will allow other researchers to explore the connections among the regulatory elements, genes, and various diseases. For example, Weng said, her team identified regulatory elements that may be linked with the gene variants associated with lupus, schizophrenia, and breast cancer.

Left to right, Dean Emeritus and Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering Charles DeLisi (BME), 2022 Charles DeLisi Award and Lecture recipient Zhiping Weng (’97), and ENG Dean Kenneth Lutchen

“None of this would be possible if Charles hadn’t mapped the humane genome,” said Weng, referring to the lecture’s namesake, Dean Emeritus and Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering Charles DeLisi (BME), pioneer of the Human Genome Project. “The ENCODE Project followed in the footsteps of the Human Genome Project,” said Weng, who worked in DeLisi’s BU Lab as a doctoral student.

As dean of the BU College of Engineering from 1990 to 2000, DeLisi recruited leading researchers in biomedical, manufacturing, aerospace and mechanical engineering, photonics and other engineering fields, establishing a research infrastructure that ultimately propelled the college into the top ranks of engineering graduate programs. In 1999 he founded—and then chaired for more than a decade—BU’s Bioinformatics Program, the first such program in the nation.

Before Weng’s presentation, Maysarah K. Sukkar Professor of Engineering Design and Innovation Elise Morgan (ME, MSE, BME), the associate dean for research and faculty development, presented Roberto Tron and Gianluca Stringhini—both assistant professors of ECE—with the Early Career Research Excellence Award. The award celebrates the significant, recent, high-impact research achievements of exemplary tenure-track faculty who are within 10 years of receiving their PhD.