A Tremendous Learning Experience

Interview with IdeaConnection Problem Solver Martin Gollery
Martin Gollery is a bioinformaticist who runs Tahoe Informatics, a consulting company that works with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies all around the world.

He also helps companies with their marketing messages and is an editor of the journal Bioinformation. Here he talks about his professional background and experience as a problem solver with IdeaConnection.

photo of Martin GolleryWhat does your work involve?

It varies quite broadly. It’s mostly helping people analyze their protein and DNA data. But I've also helped people increase their sales and marketing presence by working with their marketing message. I've been in the field for a number of years now so I have a pretty good idea of what people want.

With protein and DNA data one area I’ve worked on is plants, and there a concern is stress responses. So a company might want some crop to do better under conditions of cold or drought or salt, and so they tend to want to understand what genes are involved so as to increase the ability to grow crops in different conditions.

With the aim of manipulating the genome for those conditions, or to understand the best environments that work for the plants?

Yes, it could be just knowing the best environment. For example, I was working with the Grape Genome Program some years ago. The idea there is different grapes might be suitable for different sort of environments. So some want more heat, some want more cold, that sort of thing. The French always said, "Well the grapes have to suffer to make great wine." I live in Nevada and so we were saying, "Well, we live in Nevada, we can make grapes suffer. We have cold and heat and drought."

But the question is why? Why does that work? Just to understand what's going on. So you're not really even to the point of saying, "Well what are we going to do with this knowledge," it's just to get the knowledge to begin with.

One of the papers I worked on has something like a thousand citations (Reactive oxygen gene network of plants. Trends Plant Sci. 2004 Oct;9(10):490-8.). I don't even know how many books it’s in.

How did you get into bioinformatics?

I actually got into bioinformatics in the late 90s. I was a science teacher and a company in town was looking for somebody to work in this area and I really didn't know anything about it then. Bioinformatics was just exploding. The newer sequencers, the capillary sequencers, were just coming out, so there was at the time, a huge influx of sequence data.

Now of course we look at that and think it was tiny. In a very short time I became one of the old guys of the field and it was very novel. Even though I wasn't actually one of the first but I was seen as being an expert after a relatively short period of time and was being asked to speak at conferences and write papers and things like that.

Would you describe yourself as a problem solver?

Absolutely, yes. That's really to analyze the situation and to come up with creative ways of solving the problem. This is really the key; what technique you're using is really of less importance. So I worked on a technique called Hidden Markov Model and I wrote a book about it. So I'm seen as kind of a Hidden Markov Model sort of guy, but that really is not what's important. What's important is finding a way to solve the problem at hand.

You mentioned creativity, do you do anything to enhance yours?

Yes, I do a lot of creative endeavors. I sing, I'm a photographer, I'm an actor. So I have a lot of things that kind of nourish my creative spirit.

Do these activities feed into your science?

Sure, yes absolutely. Because being able to look at something with a novel perspective is key. If these things were straightforward then you wouldn't need a solver. You'd have a company, and if it was just a set stepwise procedure to get to a solution then anybody could do it.

Moving on a little bit to IdeaConnection, what have you worked on so far?

I've worked on three different projects. One for tRNA, one for MicroRNA, and one was a circular chromosome project. They were trying to inject circular chromosomes into cells and basically trying to identify when it worked and when it didn't.

How did you find the experience of working in a virtual team with people from different backgrounds?

I actually really like that portion of it. The ability to interact with other people, particularly in other countries, has been very positive. I worked with one person who was from a part of Italy near where there was an earthquake a couple of years ago and I had known several other people from that part of Italy because their college was destroyed and they came to study for a year at my wife's college.

And I worked with another woman, she's at a University in Belgium and it turns out that my middle child, my daughter, is going to be spending next year in Belgium as an exchange student. So that's kind of an additional connection. That's definitely one of the best parts of IdeaConnection, working with people from other parts of the world.

Are debate and discussion difficult in a virtual team when you can’t see your colleagues?

No, I haven't had that problem. Certainly we have had debates about which direction to go and things like that but I don't think they’ve been hindered by the fact that we're working remotely. Sometimes we have difficulties if somebody doesn't have a good Internet connection. That can be a bit of a problem, but we've always been able to work around it.

Have you found the Facilitators to be a help, to move discussions on?

Yes, two of the three facilitators that I've had were just outstanding. The other one was okay but I had two that were just phenomenal. One, because he was experienced in the field and so he had some good ideas and the other one was just a really good Facilitator, that's what she does. So she was very skilled at getting people together, getting people moving in the right direction, things like that.

Have you met with any success on the challenges?

Yes, one was a partial award, one was rejected and we’re still waiting on the third.

As well as contributing your ideas and imparting knowledge, has it been a learning experience as well?

Oh yes, definitely, because everybody has their own skills, their own core capabilities, things that they're specialists in. So I think it's been a tremendous learning experience.

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