Dr Philippe Rocca-Serra, Senior Research Lecturer

Dr Philippe Rocca-Serra


Dr Philippe Rocca-Serra, Senior Research Lecturer, talks about barriers to the communication of scientific results, building infrastructure for e-science and privacy and data protection issues.

When did you start at the Centre and what was your first role here?

I started in 2010 as Technical Project Lead; now I am a Senior Research Lecturer.

What is your background?

Life Scientist, PhD in molecular biology from the University of Bordeaux, EMBO fellowship supporting work at the University of Oslo, followed by 8 years working as a Data Scientist at the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), contributing to design and development of databases, tools and data standards for communicating scientific results.

Summarise the research you are doing / your research interests in a few sentences.

We aim to identify the barriers to communication of scientific results; create metrics for the assessment of data quality; structure information to make it available to software agents to accelerate the gathering of scientific evidence and the generation of new hypotheses. One of the projects I currently work on applies this work to translational medicine, a field of study where one turns basic research into therapies to make a difference in clinics and to patients.

Another project I work on revolves around building infrastructure for e-science, this is like the highways, bridges and tunnels that modern science requires to allow data to be shared. The interoperability (the ability to work with other systems or products) of information is a major issue nowadays, we need converters to transform data from one format to another to be able to share. It is like the problem that someone who travels to the continent without a power adaptor has. In science too unfortunately we need a raft of adaptors to convert and tap into local resources. It is clunky and inefficient because there is lack of widely used standards.

Why is this important (to the scientific community / the world at large)?

Every year, countries invest billions of dollars in research programmes. Up until now, scientists were happy reading manuscripts where methods were described. But nowadays, modern science is digital - we can record neuron activity, perform high resolution brain imaging, sequence patient genomes or track activity /sleep patterns with a watch - all generating a huge amount of data. Yet, it turns out that a big chunk of this data is lost or unavailable for reuse. It cannot be accessed, cannot be recovered and it is a huge loss in terms of opportunities and scientific discovery. This is a very unfortunate state of affairs and we are working at fixing this. In many respects, the issue is more sociological than technical.

What would you like to do next, funding permitting?

I would like to continue to work with and for publishers and Pharma, bringing my research work into practice, transferring the knowledge to make a real difference.

Are you involved in any wider collaborations? Why are these important?

Collaboration is everything. We have collaborators in the UK, several European countries, China and the USA. In the digital area, everything is connected and it is impossible to work in isolation. Building widely accepted standards is about bringing together geographically distributed people from heterogeneous fields and converging to a common language to share data.

What publication/paper are you most proud of and why?

An article in Nature Genetics in 2012 (doi: 10.1038/ng.105, pubmed: 22281772) 'Toward interoperable bioscience data' , a major achievement because is the first milestone of a large collaborative effort started in 2007, which still continues today!

Have you received any awards or fellowships?

During my PhD I was awarded an EMBO fellowship to support my work at the University of Oslo. Currently, I collaborate with and work for Roche, an international pharmaceutical company.

What do you think the most important issues/challenges in your field will be in the next decade and how is the Centre placed to address them?

Privacy and data protection issues will be at the forefront of issues in the future. It is essential that the infrastructure we are building and that I mentioned earlier can be trusted. Trust that the expenditure is justified and trust that personal data is not abused. Finally, there are number of significant issues around what it means in terms of knowledge development and use.

What do you think the Centre does best?

Bringing people together and making them realize that different backgrounds and skills offer great opportunities to learn new techniques. The Centre is brilliant in its range of top-notch experts from a range of domains and its ability to connect people to seek expertise and bring out skills.