What was a major turning point in your career?
I had studied physics in my native Argentina and was planning to get a graduate degree in Toronto. After visiting Toronto, I stopped by Yale, where a friend was doing his PhD in math. I was very interested in the studies on the fractal nature of fluid turbulence that K.R. Sreenivasan (Sreeni) was doing there. So, I went to see him. While we were talking, he called the provost and asked if he could add me as a PhD student, even though I hadn’t formally applied to Yale and all the deadlines had already passed. That visit to Sreeni changed the course of my life.
You got your PhD in mechanical engineering and wrote your thesis on the physics of turbulence. But now you’re into cutting-edge biology. Why the switch?
When I was in graduate school, the human genome project was under way. This was the frontier of the unknown. Turbulence was a beautiful subject, but the problems they were trying to solve were niche. No other generation had ever seen the sequence of the genome. We were privileged witnesses.
What work are you most proud of?
One of them is the DREAM Challenges. As I was doing research in the early days of computational biology, it was clear to me that our field was in desperate need of rigorous algorithm evaluation. I came up with the idea of crowdsourcing computational biology challenges and scoring the submitted solutions using datasets that had not been previously seen by the participants. These competitions led to free sharing of data and to open collaborations. DREAM stands for Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods. Over the past 13 years, more than 15,000 researchers have used DREAM in one way or another. It has had a profound impact in the computational biology community.
I am also proud of the research we have been doing for almost 10 years at the boundary between nanotechnology and biology, which is called nanobiotechnology. This work led us to create a wet lab in IBM Research where we are doing actual biological experiments. There is great hope that diagnosis in the future will be done non-invasively using biomarkers in the bodily fluids, what are called liquid biopsies. Besides the impact to medicine, this technology is opening very interesting business opportunities for IBM.
“I am a committed proponent of open science, especially in biomedicine, where speed in research may result in saving patients’ lives.”
Can you describe a DREAM challenge?
One challenge we have done in the recent past was to predict the course of disease in ALS patients using clinical data. There is a need for this: Lou Gehrig died from ALS two years after diagnosis. Stephen Hawking lived 55 years after his diagnosis. If we can predict disease progression in an individual, it might help doctors to better choose treatment and pharmaceutical companies better recruit their patients for their clinical trials.
What is one of your passions outside of work?
I have studied and trained in karate for over 20 years. Last October, following a four-day test, I had my promotion to fifth-degree black belt.
What does your family do, and how do they feel about your becoming an IBM Fellow?
My wife Dani Brunner is a biologist and a pioneer in using AI in preclinical research. She recently created her own nonprofit foundation to use wearable devices for early detection of neurological diseases. I have two children: Natasha is 24 and a fabulous artist, and Sebastian is 21 and will soon graduate from NYU with majors in math and music. I have worked in IBM for 21 years so my children cannot imagine me in any other job. They are all extremely proud that I became an IBM Fellow.