Dr. Alexander Jarasch
German Center for Diabetes Research
Bioinformatician, head of data & knowledge management at German Center for Diabetes Research, working with graph technology. In this project he connects scientists from basic and clinical research with our Covid-19 knowledge graph.
What is your professional background?
When I was a teenager, I was only interested in soccer. At school, I was also very talented in biology and computer science. Becoming a soccer star seemed unrealistic to me, so I decided to combine the other two and study bioinformatics.
Soon I realized, that I really like it but that I’m not the hardcore programmer and somehow too “stupid” for SQL (let’s say: I can handle it but I’m not the biggest fan of SQL). I am more the kind of person who likes to communicate, to connect with people and find common solutions. My passion has always been to translate biotechnological/bio-medical problems into technical terms and in this way find the solution to the problem with the user in mind. To be honest, it has never been about finding or designing the best algorithm. That is also why I did my Ph.D. thesis in 3D modeling of molecules and in a group with mainly non-computer scientists.
After my Ph.D. I worked as bioinformatics consultant for clients in the healthcare and biotechnology sector.
Since 2017, I am heading the group for data and knowledge management at the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD). By coincidence, I saw this fancy new technique called “graph databases” and I was hooked immediately, because this supported my way of thinking and designing solutions.
In my group, we use neo4j graph databases to connect data from different sources to better understand diabetes and enable individualized therapy.
What are you currently doing, what experience do you bring along?
Diseases are much more complex than we expected, and more and more we are realizing that many diseases are connected and related to each other - what a surprise ^^
Following the idea of better understanding diseases, my vision is to learn more about them by connecting all possible data sources and - hopefully - contribute to finding a cure for one or another disease.
My philosophy of life is not to wait for someone to find a solution, but to take responsibility and tackle and push things forward on my own. My vision in general is to connect people and information and make it available to as many people as possible so that everyone can benefit. In health care this can be crucial for the discovery or development of a therapy.
Do you have a special hobby/passion - what do you like to do most in your free time?
Very easy to answer: photography, long distance hiking and coffee - three things that can be combined very well. I can easily take my camera (actually my two cameras), a tent, my boots and a gas burner with me and go outside. Imagine waking up in Patagonia, unzip your tent, brew a fresh cup of coffee and capture the beauty of nature in a photo… What a rewarding moment - life can be so simple.
I travel a lot and in all my travels around the world I have learned to always be open to every single moment, to every single problem you face. Often you “encounter” the solution to your problem on the other side of the world, and most often unexpectedly.
Why did you join the project - what motivated you and still inspires you today?
During the first week of lockdown, Martin and Sebastian talked to Tim and I about the Kaggle CORD-19 data challenge, and we decided to spend some time on it and participate. It was obvious to me that we can build something on the CORD-19 data that is similar to what we are doing at the DZD - connecting as much biomedical information as possible so that researchers can easily traverse this jungle of information.
The CovidGraph project thus supports my vision of connecting both information and people so that we can all achieve more together.
It was and still is motivating that people from different countries, companies and backgrounds contribute to such an amazing open-source project that will hopefully grow even more. We are all driven by the idea of “moving things forward” and not waiting for others to do it eventually. It is the people and their way of thinking that motivates me every day.
Have there been any “uh-huh moments” or surprises during the last months (since the project started)?
Yes - both positive and negative.
Let us start with the positive: I was very surprised how many people are out there who have the same way of thinking as I do. Within a few days more than 10 volunteers from different IT companies joined our initiative and brought in their experiences. Hardly any of us knew each other personally, but everyone got along immediately and “just did it”. I was totally amazed that within the first 8 weeks we had not only integrated a lot of data, but also the first user interface to address scientific questions.
Now to the negative: I am very surprised that such great and sustainable open-source projects do not find funding. It is sad that many institutions still do NOT recognize the value and significance of IT infrastructure and therefore do not invest in it. Buzzer words like A.I. and deep learning get much more attention - both of which can only be achieved with a good and sustainable infrastructure.
What are the challenges of the project for you?
Every project has its challenges, including CovidGraph. In my opinion there are two major challenges: First, we need to get scientists to move away from old data strategies, like Excel (if Excel can be counted as one of them at all) and to be open to modern techniques, like graph technology. To do this, we not only have to provide the techniques, but also train the users. Secondly, we must educate society that IT infrastructure cannot be taken for granted and provided free of charge. The challenge here is to convey that behind every infrastructure are people and a lot of work.