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Category Archives: Research

Many Eyes and literature summary

I’m not the first one to come up with this idea – Ntino posted about it before. However, I didn’t really understand before how powerful it could be. Using Many Eyes visualization capabilities I’ve created a quick browsable summary of abstracts related to a particular protein. I took all abstracts PubMed returned for a particular query (in this case it was “YadA Yersinia”; YadA is a prominent adhesin and important pathogenicity factor in Yersiniae) and uploaded them as text into Many Eyes. I chose “Word Tree” representation and searched for “yada”, which gave a nice graph of the most prominent phases related to this protein/gene name. Maybe it’s not a breakthrough, but compared to the classification/semantification provided by GoPubMed, such approach works much better for entities that aren’t well described in biological ontologies.

Given that the whole concept is pretty straightforward, it would be nice if one of alternative PubMed search engines provided a similar method of summarizing user’s query, don’t you think?

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Posted by on October 4, 2008 in Papers, Research, Visualization

 

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Future of Science on the (ZuiPrezi) map

I’ve just stumbled across map of predictions about global science and innovation created at a recent IFTF workshop in Singapore (the interface is a novel service for online presentation called ZuiPrezi – it looks very promising and I’m waiting for it to come out of private beta). The map contains a few points that resonate with my own scientific interests:

  • bioelectricity, microbial fuel cells and self-assembly for molecular electronics were for me areas where synthetic biology comes into play
  • scientific publications changing from journals to articles and proposal to make an institute for free exchange of ideas looked like indications that Science 2.0 memes are spreading very well
  • and finally, I’m happy to see more people believing that real-time, non-invasive and possibly 3D sensing of biological processes (aka “how is my cholesterol level building up?”) will be available sooner than in 50 years

As usuall with such predictions, I feel like many of them are quite conservative – or even schematic. Only very few were completely new to me, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that actually most of these predictions will turn out to be true in some time. I would like to see something that would immediately blow me away, but on the other hand it’s all relative :).

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Posted by on September 30, 2008 in Comments, Research

 

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How far one can push online collaboration in research?

History comparison reports highlight the chang...Image via Wikipedia

A week or so ago I’ve asked on the FriendFeed if there’s an interest in writing a cyclic publication on the status of Science 2.0. I thought that summarizing every year advancements in openness of science would be a good idea. During discussion it turned out that there’s a need to write a first major publication on Science 2.0 concepts because there isn’t one published in the life sciences field. The final conclusion of interested people was to meet face to face on the upcoming conference and discuss things in detail.

And this made me think.

I started to wonder why people who live, breathe and do research online still need to meet in person to plan and discuss some stuff. The very obvious explanation is that the conference was only two weeks ahead, so there was nothing more than that, but some patterns (brainstorm online, then meet in person, then finish online) repeat so often that I started to believe an online collaboration can only go to a certain point.

The excuse is not in the tools, especially given how fast the new ones appear.  As an examples may serve recently launched Adobe Acrobat site, which contains online editor and live collaboration suite (contains screen sharing, notes, chat, audio, video) or its analog for programmers: Assembla (svn, git, trac, wiki, milestones).

My feeling is that what makes a difference is not a quality of interaction while working on a certain project, but the possibility of discussing things not directly related to this project. Online collaboration is usually very focused. When editing a document online it’s usually hard to side-track it, so at the end it’s about something else than it was planned. Calls or videoconferences have usually a schedule. No place for non-related stuff. No place for a beer/coffee/glass of water and a chat about how life was good in old times. No place for discussions on random things and coming to the main project from a different angle and with completely new ideas.

I’ve been trying for quite a long to work online with other people on some projects from my home office (which is in the middle of nowhere). As you can guess, it works to a certain point and majority of them were improved upon meeting face to face. And this left me wondering how far can I push online collaborations. It isn’t usually an issue in IT field, but so far it doesn’t look very promising in research.

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Posted by on August 27, 2008 in Comments, Community, Research

 

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One year of blogging – plans for ten years

Ethos Roundtable at Bob Doyle's Home - July 18...Image by Pathfinder Linden via Flickr

Following BioBarCamp I missed one year anniversary of this blog. With sixty something posts I cannot say I’m very productive blogger, but I didn’t aim at being one, as probably all other science-types. My goal was to be engaged in the conversation and I have reached it much faster than I expected. I got lots of help and encouragement from people I wouldn’t even dear to email a year ago. I know much more than I did on things outside of my research area. While it sounds all pathetic, advantages of being part of this community are hard to overestimate – I wrote about it couple of times already (and Neils did a great job summarizing why you should have a web presence).

Where is “Freelancing science” heading? That’s a question I asked myself pretty often during last 12 months. At first, I just blogged about interesting stuff around bioinformatics. Then I made a jump into freelancing as scientists (and this experiment goes pretty well). Statistics on keywords people are using to find this blog clearly show that there’s some interest within bioinformatics community in following this path. But the idea for this blog I have right now is not about freelancing anymore. Or rather it’s about freelancing on the next level, because today I think about starting a non-profit institute.

I believe that small research groups formed as a non-profit organizations will have enourmous impact on science within next ten, twenty years (more about it in upcoming post about the future of scientists). In spirit of freelancing they will jump from one project to another (see Deepak’s post about bursty work and follow-ups), developing solutions and making discoveries much faster (or cheaper) than it is possible in beaurocratic environment. We do have tools for effective collaboration online, we have new generation scientists that do not feel attached to academic system and we have science which starts to evolve about undestanding data, not performing experiments. Is it time to try such approach?

So, watch this space to see how the idea develops. I’m also interested in your opinions and experiences with starting and cooperating with non-profits if you have any.

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Posted by on August 11, 2008 in Career, Community, Research

 

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By any measure I’m average at most

Nature, Science and PNASImage via Wikipedia

As you have probably noticed, yesterday’s BioBarCamp was covered in depth over at FriendFeed and additionally Cameron was streaming video live from the event (it’s still available under the same address). One particular session drawed my attention, because it was about measuring impact of scientists. It’s something I have very strong opinion about since couple of weeks, so forgive me this rant.

Peter Binfield (PLoS) and Pedro Beltrao did a great job on presenting current status of the issue and presented potential way to measure impact of a publication (quoting after Shirley“your article received x citations, viewed x times, received x comments, bookmarked x times, rated x by experts, discussed on x respected blogs, appeared in x news media, etc etc” – instead of single “your article was published in journal with IF of X”). And while two months ago I was really interested in such discussions and willing to help, today I simply don’t care. The reason is simple and is presented in the post title: by any measure, I’m average at most.

That’s absolutely obvious that majority of scientists is at most average by any standard or measure. And that is not going to change, at least not much. Those who are at the top by Impact Factor today, will be at the top by other measure. Those who do some not-that-important stuff like me, will be still pretty average by other measure. One of the reasons may be all kinds of issues with normalization of the field size (there’s too much problems with biological ontologies to believe that dividing science space into fields is going to work much better). Another thing may be relative importance of the field (that’s something different from field size) – human research will always draw more attention than electrochemistry. And I could go on and on – all these issues aren’t novel and have been described and discussed in thousands of blog posts. The point is that even if such new ideal measure is going to be fair, it will not change life of majority of scientists. Not only because some of us do average things, but also because some of us have average money (BTW, I haven’t found much discussion on including in the measure research budget, which surprises me given the fact that amount of money spent on a project correlates pretty much with the IF of the journal it is published in afterwards).

So, I don’t really care if IF stays or not (although people working on improving measuring get my deep respect). Reputation-wise I’m going to be in the middle unless I will make something extraordinary. But honestly to make a scientific breakthrough the last thing I need is a number describing quality of my thinking.

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Posted by on August 8, 2008 in Career, Comments, Research

 

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Growing in open source business model

cleanedImage by *w* via Flickr

Last couple of months I’ve been quite busy with writing PhD thesis and few other projects, but also I was trying to start an open project balancing between academia and industry. This balance sounds like an opportunity, but in fact it was an issue instead. The issue wasn’t in the money – I was lucky to find people willing to help me in getting funding. The issue was rather in what I need to give away in exchange for the money – openness, control over the project or all intellectual property rights. Being already established scientist or a business person would solve such issues immediately, but I am still PhD student, so I need to face it. And while I have still plenty of people to talk to (I think it will take another month or two), that left me thinking about career on the border between industry and academia.

On both sides, in academia and industry, career path (and I’m not talking here only about having a job, but also about starting a business by yourself) is somehow clear and one can get a significant help along the way, but I haven’t found such clear path on the border between these two. Open source business model seems to work well mostly for very established players (such as Apache or RedHat) – growing in such model looks much more difficult than on either of sides. Probably Antony Williams from ChemSpider (who was one of the people that inspired and encouraged me to follow this path) would say much more in here, especially how easy (is not) to get a financial support for working on a project like ChemSpider.

I don’t think about working in one or the other environment anymore. Being freelancing scientist has a lot of good sides and growing wouldn’t be an issue (for example I have enough collaborations and ideas to cover financially next 3-4 years from grants; publications would follow). But, as I wrote before,some of the projects I’d love to work on are unlikely to be funded in academic system. On the other hand, openness is too important for me to give it away, so only a merger of these two sounds interesting. There are few examples of successful merging industry and academia, but they all seem to operate on different principles, compared to my recent attempts. Craig Venter’s model was as far as I know most of the time double-sided – he had a non-profit search unit and a company that commercialized its discoveries. Pretty similar has also David E. Shaw. So I have started to wonder if sticking to borderline is actually the very best idea. Being involved on two fronts at the same time sounds pretty overwhelming, but so far these are the only examples when this whole idea seems to work. Are you aware of any others?

My other hope is that new ways of growing on the borderline will very soon emerge. There’s quite a lot happening right now on the front of supporting innovations (including open models), so maybe over there I will find my niche. We’ll see.

(The image above is not my desk. While I work in a home office, mine doesn’t look so clean.)

Further reading:

A microfunding system for research and innovation.

Pharma looks at new ways of innovate.

Discussion around business model around Open Data is building up.

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Posted by on July 21, 2008 in Career, Comments, Research

 

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Human genobiome and disease risk assesment

Schematic diagram of the life cycle of {{w|Esc...Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently attended a talk on the advancements of human metagenomics projects. As the speaker admitted, the whole field is a researchers’ gold mine – almost all they find is new and interesting. There were couple of interesting points – mainly concerning how limited our knowledge about things in here is. For example, there was a unconfirmed feeling among microbiologists that in fact all modern microbiology is nothing more than biology of E. coli and relatives. Now we know that for sure – number of known to us microbial species is estimated at 0.5% of all existing microbial species. Also, I heard a nice story about polish doctor who described in 19th century Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastric diseases (there was a Nobel prize for that in 2005), wrote a book and then trashed the whole thing because he couldn’t grow the bacteria in a pure culture. Another important issue was amount of data and lack of new ways of handling them.

But the most interesting for me was a connection between human microbiome and diseases. Or rather a possibility of such connection. I am not aware of any single case when composition of human microbiome have been proven to influence chance of getting ill and I don’t think there will be a lots of such correlations found soon. My impression is that correlations are to be found when we have both, a complete human genome and a complete metagenome of all that lives on particular person – a human genobiome, as I’ve called it (BTW, word “genobiome” is not present in Google – is there a better word for that?). And I believe that getting the first full human genobiome will be the achievement compared to sequencing human genome for the first time. Not because of technical difficulties – because of the all discoveries that need to be made to make it happen. For example, human gut of all people carries a species doing some sulfur reaction – but  its population is only up to few thousands cells. How many such cases are we have in our organisms? That is very good question. The field is brand new, and possibilities of speculations are endless.

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Posted by on July 6, 2008 in bioinformatics, Research

 

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Joining ONS club – classification and prediction of bacteriocins

It’s finally the time to jump in into Open Notebook Science pool with my small project: classification and prediction of bacteriocins. Main page of this project is on Freelancing Science wiki: freelancingscience.wikispaces.com/bacteriocins. After reading recent post by Michael Barton on ONS , I’ve decided to stick only to wiki – I had already another blog set up for this project, but if blog doesn’t work very well for Michael, I doubt it will work for me. Since it’s completely side project, updates on the project blog on would be embarassingly rare. So far the wiki doesn’t contain much of a data, nothing more than a plan in fact. But I think it’s important to at least start somewhere.
Direct inspiration for the project was this post at Microbiology Blog. It describes results of some experiments on growth inhibition of bacteria by haloarcheal organisms, which could be in some cases explained by novel archeocins, peptide or protein antibiotics from Archea. After quick look I realised, that I see sequence similarity between seemingly non-related bacteriocins. That of course lead to a question if I am able to repeat the procedure from my PhD project – understand the protein family, and then write an annotation/prediction tool. I don’t expect outstanding results but at least this will be a good occasion to document my approach to protein sequence annotation. So if not scientific, it should have at least a little of educational value.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2008 in bioinformatics, Research

 

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Breaking news: structure of usher pore solved

My colleague is at Grenoble on the conference about host-pathogen interactions. Today he sent me important news: Gabriel Waksman (that’s not surprising to anybody interested in structural biology of bacterial pathogenesis) showed structure of usher pore – soon to be published.

Why is that important? Usher is a membrane part of two component system responsible for assembly and transport of fimbriae/pili in gram-negative bacteria – pretty essential element in these organisms. This protein was identified in early 90s (or even earlier) and for quite a while lots of people tried to solve/predict/model its structure. Its structure was assumed to resemble porin – but a large insert right in the middle of beta-barrel gave lots of problems in predicting correct topology. Now we know (at least my colleague saw it, we need to wait) how the final structure looks like and I was also told that its functional aspects have a big relevance to other secretion systems. Have a look on this protein when it’s out (I’ll post definitely about it) – I think you will be surprised even if nuances of host-pathogen interactions are not very appealing to you.

Studying any niche area on the molecular level can be very rewarding. Novel protein fold by itself is not a big deal anymore (it used to be – browse through archives of Nat. Struc. Biol. from several years ago). But putting this novel structure in well known functional context and understanding constrains that led to a new solution is still considered a first-class science.

 

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Jane – Journal/Author Name Estimator

Jane – Journal/Author Name Estimator is a new web based application that can suggest potential reviewers or target journals for a manuscript based on its title and abstract. It was just published by Bioinformatics under Advance Access (but unfortunately it’s not an open access article). I have tested two of my upcoming publications and Jane performed well: I wasn’t surprised by most of predicted names and journal titles. The topic I’m writing about in these papers is rather narrow, so don’t treat it as any performance measure – test it yourself, if you are interested.

Probably I’m not going to use it as authors suggested – I consider this application a helpful literature research tool.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2008 in bioinformatics, Papers, Research, Services

 

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