Award holders' discussion dinner: Dame Janet Thornton



On 21st February 2017, the Academy hosted a discussion dinner for award holders on the topic of Big Data.

Professor Dame Janet Thornton DBE FRS FMedSci, Fellow of the Academy and world leader in bioinformatics was the guest speaker for our recent award holders’ discussion dinner. Fifteen Academy award holders from our Clinician Scientist Fellowship, Starter Grants and Springboard schemes attended the event, which was chaired by the Academy’s President, Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci and the co-Chair of the Academy’s Academic Careers Committee, Professor Chris Pugh FMedSci.

Dame Janet is a Senior Scientist and former Director of EMBL-EBI. Her research group focuses on understanding protein structure, function and evolution using computational approaches. The tools and databases she has developed are used worldwide for basic research, in academia and also in pharmaceutical companies. 

In her talk, Dame Janet drew on her rich career to reflect on how Big Data has revolutionised the biological research landscape. Our understanding of biology at the molecular level has changed radically in the last 50 years. We can now sequence whole genomes at a fraction of the time and cost of 50 years ago. For the first time, the problem is not the generation of data but its analysis. Big Data, particularly from genomics and transcriptomics, presents huge opportunities such as the elucidation of the genetic causes of disease, personalised medicine or tracking of infections.

As our understanding of the molecular basis of disease deepens, clinical life will be affected. Dame Janet indicated that the clinical leaders of the future will be those who understand the potential of the vast array of data available and how it can increase our understanding of health. If scientists and clinicians work together, we can accelerate progress by improving, for example, the process from collection of tumour samples for sequencing to the organisation of electronic health records.

Our genes are only the beginning; the goal will be to tap into the unused data - electronic health records, cohort data, biobank data, fitness apps and social media data, as only then can we build the picture all the way from genotype to phenotype. For this to occur, capacity building emerged as a big priority; databases need to be built, organised and maintained. Bioinformaticians and other data scientists are key and, as they are in high demand in many sectors, secure career paths and progression must be ensured to retain the brightest.

Finally, Dame Janet particularly emphasised the importance of openness and data sharing. The public availability of many key biological databases to date has been central to the success and rapid progress made in the field. It is vital that such openness continues if we are to realise the full potential of Big Data.

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