In this interview with Dr. Andrew Magis, director of data science in the Health Data Science Lab at ISB, Kalea got to learn about his wandering journey to get to where he is now, what he’s learned throughout his career, and helpful tips for standing out in any career:
What was your journey from getting your PhD to working at Arivale and further becoming the director of Data Science at ISB? How did you know this was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I think this is a story that you may often hear, but my path was not a direct one to where I am today. I started out in computer science actually where I got my bachelors and master degree. Ultimately, I decided to go to graduate school after working in industry for a couple of years after not feeling very satisfied with the way my career was going. I ended up going to graduate school and ultimately joined a PhD program at the University of Illinois. Throughout that time and during the PhD, my career path was somewhat meandering.
At the very beginning of my program, you had to do rotations with a variety of different faculty and then you choose your PI and advisor and move forward. I did two years with my first advisor and ultimately switched over to a new advisor, Nathan Price. Even during my PhD program, it was somewhat indecisive as to what I was going to do. When I actually got my PhD it was a little weird because Nathan had moved the lab to Seattle and I was Illinois at the time. I was finishing up with my wife in Illinois and then we had to decide if we were going to move or not. Of course, that is when the decision is often made by new PhD students: are you going to try to pursue a faculty position, or are you going to go into a non faculty route. I chose the non faculty route, although I definitely could have made the decision at that point to stay fully in the academic world. I think that would have been supported by Nathan, but I ultimately decided to join Arivale as you know.
I didn’t join Arivale right away, but I joined a research project at ISB as a research scientist. That went on for a year and then ultimately Arivale, the start up was formed, and I joined the company going down more of an industry path than an academic path. Unfortunately, Arivale didn’t make it. I was in the startup for five years and I was doing research, but I was also immersed in the world of venture capital, technology, and working with a variety of other people from different backgrounds such as business. I think it was a great experience for me and I really enjoyed that! When Arivale closed I came back to ISB with my team and it’s been a little bit of an adjustment going back into the full academic world. Although, it’s not fully academic, we’re still pursuing a lot of industry related partnerships. Overall, I took a very meandering path. Starting at computer science, then joining a bio physics and computational biology PhD program, changing my advisor halfway through, getting my PhD, joining a startup, and then leaving that startup to come back to where I am now.
I think that my path suggested that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. For some people, maybe this isn’t true. Often, it’s what opportunities life presents to you where you have to decide if you’re going to take those or try something different. Some people really know what they want such as a faculty position, and they will do what it takes to get that. Often it involves doing a lot of things that you don’t want, making sacrifices, and other key strategic decisions regarding school, classes, projects, and advisors. To be honest, I never took that strategy. Maybe because it just didn’t interest me, or it could be the case that I’m more of a “let’s see where life takes me” kind of person, or maybe I just wasn’t really super motivated to become a faculty member.
I’ve been more of a “Hey this will be really exciting, I would love to work here, let’s work on this for a little while! But also, hey this new opportunity came up, do I want to do it, okay, let’s do that. Hey that didn’t work out, let’s move onto the next thing.” I’ve been much more of a see the opportunities that arise instead of pursuing a specific strategy for better or worse.
Could you give some insight on any projects or research you are currently working on, and what motivates you to work on this specific research?
There’s a lot of current projects that are going on. I can say that one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in is being able to work with Nathan and Lee and the rest of the ISB faculty in developing these preventative health and precision medicine approaches using multi-omic data and trying to get those implemented into the healthcare system. I am currently involved in a number of projects within ISB as well as within the Providence system at large to leverage our science, research, and what we learn about human health, and deploy that in a patient based setting.This is slow going and the progress with the medical system is always slow and very considered so it often feels like a grind, but we are making progress. Everyday we talk to new people and new opportunities emerge, so I still feel optimistic about where we’re headed.
At Arivale, what we wanted to do was set up an engine that would make available to individual consumers aspects about their health that nobody’s ever seen before, or not that many people have anyway, and in doing so help them improve their health and reduce their risk of disease. This is all being done in the guise of a consumer based product, but it had another motivation such as this product will generate a lot of data that can be fed back into our research efforts which will then motivate more research into human health. Basically, you would have this kind of cycle develop from a product. That was really our overall vision. So, what I’m trying to do now with my research at ISB and within Providence, is to restart that and build it back even better than it was! To build a data generation engine that lots of patients will want because they get some benefit from the research that ISB and our partners are doing, but then, their very participation creates new datasets that will ultimately feed back into the research and support what we’re doing at ISB, and hopefully make these efforts even better in the future.
That’s kind of the big picture of what I’m trying to get going, and then there’s a lot of smaller projects under that that either direct translations of the data into clinical research such as our work in polygenic scores, phylogenomics, or in other medical genetics, or other more research oriented things like discovering early disease cancer markers and that sort of thing. The big picture is to give more value to patients through the multi-omics data that we’re collecting and the insights that we’re generating to generate more data for the scientists to use from those patients to ultimately support the research that goes back to them!
Why is this type of research important?
To use a silly analogy, we have amazing technology and insights as individuals into the workings of our car or the workings of the technology around us, but very few people have a good understanding of what’s going on inside their body. Me and others want to change this. We want to shift the focus of treating disease after it emerges to preventing disease before it emerges while learning about what signals indicate risks and then giving people information about their risks.
Maybe it’s risks they are born with in the case of genetics, or risks that have emerged because of their behaviors or environment that they weren’t born with, but basically give people as much information about those risks, how they can avoid manifestation of disease to the degree that we can do that, and ultimately, help people live longer healthier lives. That’s sort of the real big picture that everybody wants to do.
How to do that? Well, there are a lot of pitfalls in doing that, but that’s sort of the big view here. That feels important. I think if we can do that, especially if we can reframe the discussion around “let’s try to stop treating people until after they are sick, and instead, try to prevent the disease from emerging in the first place” I think that would be an enormous benefit both to individuals and society at large. As I mentioned, if we can do this in a way that will also provide more data about patients to scientists and researchers who are trying to understand these things, then it kind of has a dual benefit. That’s where I think it’s valuable.
Throughout your career, you have released many publications, what is your favorite research work you’ve done so far and why?
There’s a lot to choose from. I’m probably going to be biased to the one that happened most recently because it’s the closest to the top of mind, but I really liked the final paper that Arivale published were we looked at genetic risk and showed how it influenced response to behavioral intervention. I think that, although unfortunately it published after Arivale closed so we weren’t able to capitalize on it the way I think we could have, got referenced so many times in discussions with other groups as a way to give patients back something of interest to them. It showed that genetics is about more than just your specific risk for disease or single variants and that we have the ability to estimate, currently not an accurate pinpoint, how you might respond to certain interventions, what interventions might be most effective to you (at least statistically) and where you stand regarding your risk for certain conditions. For example, take something like cholesterol, if you’re genetically predisposed to have high cholesterol or not. Most people don’t know the answer for that and yet that is something important for them to know as they think about their own lifestyle choices. Really to get that information in front of people and learn how to teach them about it and what the right methods to communicate it across are. That’s one of the things that came out of that paper that I’m really quite proud of.
There’s a more recent paper where we used some of the data that Arivale has collected on pre clinical samples, so these are samples that are collected prior to the diagnosis of any disease on a patient population that was not chosen for any specific risk factors, and then we were able to follow people for enough time that a number of them became diagnosed with a disease. We were then able to look back on their older samples and see the signals of disease emerging! In some cases, years before it was diagnosed. While this is by no means the final work on that and there is clearly a lot more work to be done, I think that just sort of shows the potential of tracking patients, collecting samples and data from them over time just because it was important to collect that data, not just because you need a cohort to study a particular disease. That is another paper that I’m particularly proud of.
What is an ugly truth of your research/job? And what is one way that helped you navigate/cope with that?
There’s always the seeking of funding – which is always an ugly truth. I’m sure there are scientists out there that like writing grants and are excited to do so, however I find it incredibly discouraging and a very conservative process, at least writing the types of grants that I’ve been writing. Reflecting on it, it’s kind of cemented my choice for clearly going into an academic career and being a faculty member. Your career and the success of your career depends largely upon your success of getting, often usually, federal grants to support your research. Those that get them succeed and those who do not leave academia.
Most often, there are more people that end up leaving academia than those who succeed. The competition for federal grants, the effort that’s involved in writing them, and the incredibly low success rate at getting one funded after so much resources are put into it is something. I realized I’m not offering any better solutions right now or any solutions for a system that will work better, but I find it to be an enormous effort that is ultimately wasted by tens of thousands of very talented and hardworking people. And careers in academia that ultimately go nowhere, because despite the best efforts, the competition for these grants are so high. The criteria for getting them funded can also be incredibly random. It doesn’t feel to me that the way they are reviewed are particularly stable, reliable, or reproducible. In my mind, it makes me think I made the right decision about not going down the academic path the first time because it’s clearly not something that I’m temperamentally, or maybe strategically, well suited for. We’re also launching other initiatives to raise funding through venture capital or through private support, which all have their own problems to be sure. The seeking of funding is like the dark side of science.
What advice would you give to high schoolers or anyone else who may be hoping to pursue a career in healthcare or the STEM field?
People will say stuff that is true like pursue your passion or do stuff that inspires you and that sort of thing, and I think all of that stuff is true. I also think that people are very impressed by initiative, so often that I’ve succeeded with making progress, getting people’s attention, or securing my role in a particular research area by hearing about a problem that we’re going to talk about and really taking the initiative on it! Often that means kind of starting work on something and coming up with a research plan or preliminary findings. Coming into a project saying I’ve thought a lot about this and I got a lot of resources.
It’s not really so much that you have to be right about something, but what I’m impressed with at least and others I believe, is when you come into something and you’re clearly motivated. I think talent and education is great obviously and very valuable, but they don’t take you anywhere if you don’t take initiative or have the motivation to actually act on your talent and education. It’s almost more impressive for somebody to come and maybe they have less experience or education in this particular area, but they came in and they’ve clearly motivated to work on it. I think that is something I would recommend, it’s not always the right strategy, but it can be a very effective strategy for getting yourself involved in a particular project, impressing the people around you such as your PI or boss, and generally helping your career move forward.
Link to ISB Profile: Andrew Magis, PhD · Institute for Systems Biology (isbscience.org)
Link to Health Data Science Lab: Health Data Science Lab · Institute for Systems Biology (isbscience.org)