UVA Professor Saves Data From Oblivion

Jan 6, 2016

As tools and technologies improve, scientists are producing and analyzing an ever-expanding amount of data, and some experts worry that we can’t keep track of it all.  To assure global access to data and its analysis, the National Institutes of Health is spearheading a program called  Big Data to Knowledge  or BD2K.  At the University of Virginia, one lab – led by one man – is playing a key role.  Sandy Hausman met him and filed this report.

Professor Wladek Minor leads a team of scientists at UVA, determined to save massive amounts of data that could be lost.
Credit University of Virginia

In the office at his laboratory, Wladek Minor displays underwater photos he’s taken – pictures of amazing sea creatures he’s met while snorkeling.   That’s just one of many activities the 70-year-old scientist pursues in his spare time.  He was trained as a solid state physicist, but at 42 he moved into a whole new field – molecular biology.

“There are many people who work on the same project for a lifetime, and they are great scientists, but for me it would be terribly boring," he explains. " I love to ski.  I ski a lot, but I am trying to ski on different trails.”

Minor’s renaissance spirit permeates the lab where a dozen people are creating 3-D models of human proteins – substances that could help to carry medications through our bodies.  He’s bar coded every bottle in the lab, to ensure greater accuracy in experimentation, and he corresponds regularly with colleagues in Poland – sometimes forwarding their e-mails to team members like Mathew Zimmerman without a second thought.

“There’s a big long paragraph full of Polish," Zimmerman recalls.  "He’ll add at the bottom:  Do that!  I’m sure glad we have Google Translate, because that helps me  figure it out.”

Minor’s lab has also created software and search tools to save and find data that might otherwise be lost.  There’s so much research underway that it can’t all be published, and often he says, the results of unsuccessful studies don’t appear in the literature.

“I think that the key to success is to know about unsuccessful experiments," Minor says. "We want to know  why they fail.”

One mark of his success is the frequent loss of talent to impressive places.  His son works at Google, and so do several former employees.

“Three people who were in my lab are now at Google," he says. "One person could be accident.  Three people are not, so I am very proud of that.”

And he doesn’t mind scientists using his data or search tools without paying.  Minor figures he cannot  commercialize everything, and he doesn't need the money.  "Don't compare yourself to Trump," he advises. " Compare yourself to someone in North Africa.  We are all rich!”

But that doesn’t mean he spends wildly.  Minor won a three year grant of $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health, but he’s spent just $20,000 on equipment – employing smart, talented people who have written their own software and built their own, customized computers – cheaper and better than what Minor says he could buy.