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Myers Garners ACM Theory and Practice Award

 

May 2002

Gene MyersMyers

Eugene Myers (PhD 1981) recently received the prestigious Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award given by the ACM for his work on human genome sequencing. The following is an excerpt from the ACM announcement.

It's not every day that novel techniques are rewarded, but ACM has done just that in recognizing Gene Myers, vice president for informatics research at Celera Genomics. "Not only did Professor Myers' mathematical analyses and simulation studies establish the feasibility of the shotgun approach to sequencing large genomes, but he went on to design the algorithms that made the reconstruction of the genome possible," said John R. White, executive director and CEO of ACM.

Myers received the Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award at the annual ACM Awards Banquet on April 27. "What's different about this particular award is that it was given to someone who's done work on problem domains that are not central or traditional to computer science," he said. "I'm very pleased that the ACM was farsighted enough to endorse work that is outside the boundaries of what is traditionally considered computer science."

Myers, who got his PhD in Computer Science in 1981 [from the University of Colorado -- BWS], talked about how he entered the realm of biology: "In 1984 at the University of Arizona, I began working with a biologist, who turned me on to the assembly problem; it was my first encounter with DNA sequence assembly as a problem." The next year, Myers was invited to attend one of the first meetings of biologists and computer scientists.

From that point on Myers would continue to advance knowledge and data gathering in bioinformatics. Celera was formed in 1998 to further efforts already begun by the publicly-funded and more well-known Human Genome Project. The two research bodies became competitors in the race to see who would be the first to complete the sequencing of the entire human genome. Aided by Myers's shotgun sequencing approach (a programming technique that automates the DNA sequencing process by breaking it down into smaller segments), Celera had sequenced all of the base pairs of the fruit fly genome by September 1999. He and his team continued to refine their algorithms, and in June 2000, Celera announced the completion of a first assembly of the human genome, concurrent with the Human Genome Project's announcement of their "rough draft." The Celera team had achieved a remarkable computational feat in record time.

Myers reflected on his career, his present research directions and what's next: "In my undergraduate days at CalTech [California Institute of Technology], I was exposed to a lot of science. I got my degree in Mathematics, but I was one unit shy of an Electrical Engineering degree. I took two years of Physics, two years of Chemistry. But amazingly -- no Biology! But I had enough general science background that I was really interested in science as a field and a discipline and I understood the mentality of scientists as opposed to mathematicians. This [interdisciplinary exposure] is very important educationally for the next generation of computer scientists."

"I'm still not really a biologist in the sense that I haven't really taken all the data that's been generated and mined it with the goal of producing biological insights into biological systems. I'm still primarily a tool developer; I'm part of the underlying biotechnology driving it forward. A lot of my work is focused on the interpretation of what comes out of instruments and out of various experimental protocols, and fundamental enabling tools, an example of which is BLAST, which enables biology researchers to do similarity searches given a particular protein they've just sequenced. DNA shotgun sequencing assembly is another example of tool building -- that was really enabling in the sense that it produces the sequence that then enables the discovery."

His future research path is two-pronged: "I see the field of biology on the brink of a new era where we'll be able to, with high-throughput technologies, interrogate the cell. That is, to begin to understand how it functions in a first-order way -- what are all the proteins, where and how they are interacting, what are they doing during those interactions. I think it will take 20 to 50 years to get to that point. My hope is that 25 years from now, if I work very hard, I will have contributed to that objective in some major way. The other thing I want to work on is new paradigms for information management systems. We have failed to develop software paradigms, user interface paradigms, and software semantic paradigms that permit scientists to make the kind of computational inquiries that they want to do. It's a question of how you develop paradigms (like those used in the design of the World Wide Web) for the manipulation of data. We've got to go beyond relational databases."

In April Myers chaired RECOMB 2002, ACM's 6th annual international conference on computational molecular biology, held in Washington, DC. Celera was this year's host.

 
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