Camping at Google: ISB Scientist Nitin Baliga Joins Elite Science Confab
You know you’ve arrived when Google invites you to headquarters in Mountain View, CA for a camp with 200 leading scientists, techies, and writers. Nitin Baliga, a rising star at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, got the coveted invite to something called Science Foo along with better-known names like inventor Dean Kamen, technology investor Esther Dyson, Harvard biologist George Church, and Carl Dietrich of flying-car fame.
What does Google care about some young biologist? More on that later. First, we’ll take a stab at explaining what Baliga’s team has done. It has showed that with mathematical algorithms, it’s possible to predict how 80 percent of all the genes in a microbial cell will respond to a variety of environmental assaults, such as gamma radiation and certain metals. Baglia also developed new software for handling genomic data, called Gaggle (hmm, wonder why that sounds so familiar?) that has attracted many users, said Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology (and an Xconomist.)
“Nitin has the capacity to integrate first-rate biology and use it to drive the development of pioneering software for handling biological data,” Hood said in an e-mail. “He has a deep understanding of both areas. Few examples of scientists exist with these unique and integrated capacities.”
Baliga, 36, a native of Mumbai, India, got his doctorate in microbiology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he got to know Hood’s research team through a collaboration. He inquired about a job at the then-fledgling ISB as a postdoc in 2000, and got it. He has since worked his way up to senior scientist, assistant professor, and now associate professor.
When I visited Baliga at his office, he said the agenda for the Google event, which is co-hosted by Nature Publishing and O’Reilly Media, seems pretty loose, with lots of free time for socializing, so he’s not sure what to expect. “It’s like a Secret Society. I still need to learn the handshake,” he joked.
One thing Baliga wants to find out is whether people outside biology fully understand the implications of the kind of research he and peers are doing. “I wonder how people there perceive the revolution in biology, and how it affects their own lives and can let them control their own health in the future.” The vision is that someday a scientist could sequence a person’s genome and combine that information with the his or her environmental history (spent any time as a coal miner? lived above a dry cleaner?) to build a model that could predict the person’s chance of getting certain diseases. It’s possible you could find out you’re the kind of coal miner who is more likely to get lung cancer, given your genes—and that information could guide your healthcare (and perhaps even career) decisions.
I asked Baliga if the research has prompted him to change any personal habits, like quitting drinking coffee because of how it might interact with his genotype. He laughed, because the work is a long way from being applied like that—at this point we are just talking about predicting how genes respond in microbes, after all.
So why does Google want to see what’s hot in biology? For one thing, Hood has been to the Googleplex to meet with co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page several times, Baliga said. For another, Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki, is a co-founder of 23andMe, a Google-backed startup in Mountain View, CA that does personal DNA analysis on more than 80 traits and diseases. Apparently, Google sees a need for sophisticated search algorithms that can separate signal from the noise in vast databases of genomic data. “Google is interested in predictive medicine,” Baliga says.
We’ll have to follow up with Baliga when he returns to Seattle to see whether Brin himself tries to pick his brain.