A Big Data Approach to Life Science
As a group leader at the Broad Institute, Shantanu Singh develops tools to tackle high-dimensional biological data.
Trained as a computer scientist, Shantanu Singh now leads a data science team at the Broad Institute and applies a big data perspective to solve biology problems. He and his team are currently developing computational and statistical methods that allow researchers to mine microscopy images of cells and uncover patterns associated with diseases or chemical perturbations.1,2
What excites you the most about developing computational methods?
I discovered the magic in mathematics and computing in middle school. I later combined this fascination with my interest in artificial intelligence and related fields to apply these concepts to solve problems in biology. I share the wonder of the physicist Eugene Wigner who believed that mathematical concepts could explain many phenomena. For me, it is not just about explaining our surroundings; rather, mathematics combined with computing can interpret the data that emerges from the natural world.
You lead a lab with cell biologist Anne Carpenter. How does that partnership work?
I joined Anne’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher because I wanted to work with someone who understood biology well. My relationship with her has evolved from mentorship to partnership, where I can brainstorm ideas, write grants, and mentor students. Our ability to empathize with one another, despite having very different backgrounds and work styles, helped us find that common language to build our research.
What advice would you give to nonbiologists who want to work in biology?
First, try to be bilingual. Don’t only understand computer science, for example, but also learn the basic aspects of biology. Enroll in a course to get past the initial hurdle of terminology because that is often the crippler. Second, it is important to realize that a nonbiologist will never be a biology expert, and that is fine. Science is a team effort, and finding someone who knows biology well is a great way to build a mutually beneficial relationship in which both can learn from each other.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.