From Eastside Birmingham to the Cori supercomputer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — UAB graduation 2015

Joshua Pritchett will take his B.S. degree in computer and information sciences to California and work with burst buffer technology.
As the year draws to a close, UAB News looks back at some of the top stories of 2015. See them all here.

joshua pritchettNearly two dozen relatives and friends will applaud Joshua Pritchett this Saturday as he becomes the first in his family to graduate from college, with a B.S. degree in computer and information sciences from the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences. Two family members, however, will be missing — his mother and his older brother.

Danny Pritchett Jr. was three years older than Joshua. “We shared the same room my entire life,” Joshua Pritchett said. The brothers lived for basketball. “It pretty much took all my time.”

Just as Pritchett was getting basketball scholarship offers coming out of high school, Danny Jr. died suddenly of an unsuspected heart abnormality, one week before he would have graduated from Jefferson State Community College. The death hit him hard. Rather than starting school, he decided to take time to explore.

“I wrote movie scripts; I wrote poems and even some music,” Pritchett said. “I assembled my first computer; I started developing websites. I did some filmmaking. Before that, I had just played basketball.”

After two years, Pritchett heard a voice in a dream say, “I will excel thee.” He applied to Jefferson State as a theater major but soon changed to computer science. “I do a lot of video editing,” he reasoned. “Let’s see how this programming behind the video editing software works.”

Now, as he graduates from UAB, magna cum laude with a 3.84 GPA and plans to start an internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, he looks back at his roots in a lower-income area of East Birmingham. He talks of how encouragement from others — at home, at Jefferson State and at UAB — gave him the lift and the strength to succeed.

“Growing up, I always had the support of both my parents. They made sure I was in the best schools (which included Ramsay High School, Clay-Chalkville High School and Shades Valley High School) and got the best education,” Pritchett said. “My mother always told me I could be anything I chose to be. She spent countless hours studying with me — flash cards when I was young, and if I struggled on a computer program, she would encourage me.”

Now, as he graduates from UAB, magna cum laude with a 3.84 GPA and plans to start an internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, he looks back at his roots in a lower-income area of East Birmingham. He talks of how encouragement from others gave him the lift and the strength to succeed.

Support even grew out of setbacks. Pritchett’s first essay at Jefferson State earned a grade of 49 from English teacher Valerie Miller-James, M.A. “Very bad,” he said. “But she took the time to explain, one-on-one, where I went wrong. She was encouraging and inspirational, and from that point my grades dramatically improved. Since then, we have stayed in touch.”

After graduating summa cum laude from Jefferson State, UAB was the next step.

“UAB has challenged me and has been like a home to me,” Pritchett said. “The environment and the support from the Computer and Information Sciences faculty have been fantastic.” Pritchett especially cited Computer and Information Sciences Professor Purushotham Bangalore, Ph.D., graduate research assistant Reed Milewicz, and Assistant Professor Peter Pirkelbauer, Ph.D., MBA.

“They have taught me a lot,” Pritchett said. “In particular, Dr. Pirkelbauer’s iProgress lab has allowed me to sit in on table talks and present scientific papers. They treated me like a graduate student.”

This past summer, Pritchett was as an intern with Silvia Crivelli, Ph.D., at the University of California, Berkeley. When he gave a talk and a poster presentation there, UAB had prepared him. “I already knew how it was done.” Pritchett found his work with Crivelli on computational biology to predict protein structures both challenging and “fantastic.”

“I learned a lot from my mentor, Dr. Crivelli, and I got to work on a supercomputer, programming in Python,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was making a contribution; but by the end of the internship, she offered me a remote internship. That gave me the confidence that she wanted me on her team.”

As Joshua Pritchett tackled college, his dad, Danny Pritchett Sr., took on extra jobs and extra work. “He always made the point,” he said, “that he didn’t want me to have to have a job. That allowed me to excel.”

But at the same time, Joshua Pritchett’s mother, Jacqueline Pritchett, was in a fight against cancer. This strong woman, who was a constant source of love and encouragement, died Oct. 16.

In January, Pritchett will start an internship with William Andreopoulos, Ph.D., at the Joint Genome Institute in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, optimizing the FALCON Genome Assembler to take advantage of burst buffer technology to speed the computations needed to piece together the genome sequence of an organism from the many short readouts generated by DNA sequencing machines.

“The processing speed of the computer is not the bottleneck,” Pritchett explained. “The bottleneck is reading and writing from memory.” He will be working with the newest supercomputer in the United States, the Cori system, named after American biochemist Gerty Cori, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Pritchett is also applying to Ph.D. programs in computational biology, which should please his grandmother Bettye Pritchett, who has been like a second mom to him. “She has always been there for me,” he said, “and she was the person who had told me since I was a little boy that I would be a scientist.”

Pritchett, now 24, says the death of his brother, Danny Jr., taught him to take advantage of every moment he has.

“Live life to the fullest,” Pritchett said, “and be the best you can be, because tomorrow is not promised.”