Hartree Center

Simulating Antibiotic Resistance Scientist Gains Fame from Forbes

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IBM scientist Flaviu Cipcigan has high ambitions. Despite recently being listed on Forbes magazine’s European 30 under 30 list for science and healthcare, he believes there is still much work to do to raise awareness and solve the challenges he is attempting to address with his research.

Simulation of the earliest contact of an antibacterial peptide with A the membrane of a bacteria. The peptide inserts, disrupts the membrane and then kills the bacteria.

“Antibiotic resistance is a problem that doesn’t inspire as much urgency as other global challenges, such as climate change,” said Cipcigan, from his lab at the Hartree Center in England, where more than two dozen fellow IBM Researchers are collaborating in solving UK’s toughest problems.

He adds, “Research estimates tens of million deaths every year by 2050. Resistant bacteria are already appearing in wastewater, transmitting their resistance genes to others, with limited drugs in the pipeline to fight the emerging superbugs. There are so many frightening and ultimately scary facts that need a broader understanding.”

Cipcigan sees his role as the interface between data, physics and biology and his toolbox includes Big Data, computer simulation, AI and physics-based methods. Combined, these tools are a potent weapon for designing antibacterial peptides. He is working with collaborators from universities, government labs, and pharmaceutical companies, to test and ultimately manufacture the best chemical candidates. Incredibly, only a year into his research he has already designed one peptide that kills many types of bacteria.

Cipcigan credits his teachers for his early success.

“In school, I became very interested in mathematics, physics and programming, guided by inspiring professors, who told incredible stories about the amazing world living at the atomic and molecular levels. This has been inspiring me ever since.”

During his PhD, Cipcigan had the opportunity to work closely with researchers from IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Lab and he spent two months there as a visiting scientist. Eventually he joined the growing IBM Research presence at the Hartree Centre.

He adds, “I was hooked on IBM after learning that I could draft a vision of my future research and control my research agenda. You don’t find this everywhere. In addition, today, I appreciate the dynamics of my role. One day I might be interacting with clients, another day I might be deep into technical work, while the other I need to present my research to a scientific meeting. The combination of broad and deep knowledge is something I thoroughly enjoy.”

Five years from now, he sees a great influence from ethics in his science and quotes Freeman Dyson who said that, “the only cure for scientific progress is ethical progress”.

Cipcigan believes that designing a new ethical framework for the 21st century is essential in guiding our use of scientific knowledge and our research going forwards.

He adds, “One of the reasons I see IBM as a great company to develop my career is its commitment to guiding the emergence of these new technologies, in a safe and responsible manner that works for all; to use technology to augment humans rather than work towards replacing them, referring to IBM’s principles for AI.”

Before leaving for a meeting with clients, Cipcigan shares some advice for young people considering a scientific career.

“One of the best metaphors I’ve heard about career development is this. Imagine you’d like to go for dinner in a new city. You’ll spend five minutes thinking about what kind of food you’d like to eat. What kind of restaurant you’d like – cozy, luxurious or eco-friendly? Five minutes is about 10 percent of the time you spend eating your dinner. If you put this much reflection in the choice of food, isn’t it wise to put equal reflection in the choice of career? Ten percent of 30 years is three years. Start early, have a vision, test it, and constantly refine.”

That just might be the recipe for the Forbes Under 30 list.

Follow him at @FlaviuCipcigan


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