As an IBM Fellow, what do you want to be known for?
I like to get to the DNA of a problem, literally. Whether it’s understanding human disease, such as Alzheimer’s or cancer, helping a small farmer maximize the cacao crop, or enabling a safer food supply chain, my inquiries begin at the molecular level.
My genomics research takes place at the intersection of biology and computer science. Critical breakthroughs at the turn of the 21st century have made this among the most exciting eras in the history of science. For example, the completion of the Human Genome Project ignited a genomic revolution that has fueled a deeper understanding of the organic world around us. And the contributions of computer science to modern society have prompted historians to label this the “Century of Algorithms.” The relatively young discipline of computer science is heavily quantitative, while biology — perhaps our oldest scientific discipline — is among the least quantitative. Conducting research where these disciplines meet is incredibly exciting. I consider myself fortunate to be at the center of this collision of ideas, and I believe that the synergy of this interaction will have a profound impact on our quality of life.
Who has been a major influence in your achievements?
Although I derive inspiration from scientific figures throughout history, my journey really began at home. My parents and family encouraged and supported my interest in science during my formative years, and they have remained unwavering in their support throughout my career. And without the advice, critiques and guidance of mentors, both inside and outside of IBM, I might not be where I am today.
My early training was in mathematics, but I ended up in computer science (CS) as a result of encouragement from my brother, an electronics engineer, and because of the growing influence of CS in modern society. That said, I now find that mathematics — both abstract and concrete — plays an increasingly important role in extracting knowledge from the ever-increasing types and volumes of genomic data.
I view my recognition as an IBM Fellow as an acknowledgement of the importance of genomics — both as a scientific endeavor, and as an essential component of IBM’s business. The field is challenging, but it continues to be an exciting journey!
“I like to get to the DNA of a problem — literally.”
What’s the best transformation advice you’ve received?
The saying “change is the only constant variable” may be an oxymoronic cliché, but it has been my best transformation inspiration. That doesn’t mean I believe in flitting from one area to another. Staying resolutely focused is the hallmark of a committed scientist, and potentially leads to innovations. But one also must be cognizant of advances from other fields, and open to new perspectives on recalcitrant problems. At the same time, it’s exciting to leverage advances in my core field to address new or longstanding challenges in other fields.