Fernando Castro-Prado is working at the University and the Health Research Institute of Santiago de Compostela, on complex disease genomics and mathematical statistics in abstract spaces. He will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
My research deals with genomic data, namely with why and how using them. The “Why?” front has to do with asking biomedical questions about the causal factors of complex, common diseases; and how the information about sequenced genomes can help solve such mysteries. Despite being based in Santiago de Compostela, quite a geographically remote part of Spain (this is where the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe ends), we have a critical mass of talented and inspirational people in our Genomic Medicine Group, as well as top-notch facilities, like the Spanish National Genotyping Centre.
As far as “How?” is concerned, I am working on developing approaches within mathematical statistics to tackle the extraordinary size and complexity of genomic datasets. One particular challenge is that, when one works with certain genetic variants, the best way to convey all the information they contain is to consider that they take values in some abstract mathematical space, where one can define distances between the objects that exist in that space. Then the next question is how to study independence in such a space, that is, how to detect meaningful associations – e.g., with a phenotype; or between genetic variants. The answer is a set of techniques known as “energy statistics,” which metaphorically consists in considering data points as astronomical objects that gravitate as a result of statistical forces and the resulting statistical energies.
Best of Two Worlds
In one word, I am having the best of two worlds. Some think I am a statistician with a geneticist’s soul; others might see me as a geneticist with a statistician’s soul; and I do not know what I am anymore … The only important thing here is that I am fortunate enough to learn a great deal, while I enjoy the two faces of my identity as a scientist – genetics and statistics.
Research always finds mysterious ways of surprising us, scientists, while we sail the seas of knowledge in our iffy vessels. When I first approached the theory of energy statistics I found it was a bit too specific, and started to fear that learning about energy statistics was only useful for doing energy statistics. However, it turns out that it is deeply connected to the theory of kernel methods, which constitute a very prominent subfield of the very prominent field of machine learning. The idea behind it is to study data of an arbitrary and usually “weird” nature (e.g., images, texts, 3D molecular structures) by applying to it a transformation – or kernel – that translates the information on those weird objects into ordinary numbers that one can easily process.
Closing the Cycle
I remember being fascinated with basic biomedical research on cells and tissues from a very young age, especially with the magnetic charm of Spanish Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Another factor was my desire to “do something useful” as a profession, which led to my interest in someday studying the molecular mechanisms of health and disease. Years went by and I discovered that many other fields of knowledge were interesting and enjoyable, which fast-forward until today, explains how I have grown into an interdisciplinary chimera.
During that long journey, a few memorable events were a “snap” moment. One of the most relevant ones took place in 2014, when I attended a talk by Harald zur Hausen in my hometown, Santiago de Compostela. That day my perspective on my career and future plans changed importantly and, now in 2021, the universe appears to want me to close the cycle, as I have serendipitously started a collaboration with a really nice scientist from the German Cancer Centre (DKFZ) – the institution Zur Hausen directed for years – and am planning a research stay there over the summer.
Impact of COVID-19 on my Career and my Life
The word “pandemic” comes from Ancient Greek πάνδημος (belonging to all the people) so, by definition, the corona situation has impacted literally everyone’s life, as commented on a previous Lindau blog post.
The first and more direct consequence of corona on my career was that the beginning of my PhD stage happened during the exceedingly hard lockdown we did in Spain, which on the positive side gave me a one-of-a-kind opportunity to stop and think about what I want to do with my life/career, while also taking a significant toll on my mental health. A colleague of mine semi-humourously pointed out that such a circumstance actually made me progress in my career more quickly, since the “PhD depression” usually comes later on. In my view, the current global situation is the perfect reminder that we should always be making the effort of turning academia into an environment of more kindness and less psychological discomfort. To me, that could be the 11th goal of the Lindau Guidelines.
On top of that, social distancing restrictions have put on hold several projects of scientific outreach and educational innovation for teenagers I participate in, which is not only detrimental for those youngsters, but also for the people who organise it – we have now lost those events, which are always an excellent reminder of why we love science!
And even if a few things have not had to be cancelled, they have had to be reinvented and to be subject to tremendous uncertainty until the last minute. For instance, I will probably be able to do the aforementioned research stay in Heidelberg very soon and I am extremely enthusiastic about it, but its organisation in the current situation has proved to be an immense logistical challenge. Ironically, after many years studying the laws of probability, this statistician had not learnt to deal with so much uncertainty.
Replenishing my Motivation Supplies by Interaction
I participated at the #LINOSD as actively as possible, as it was one of the first events (together with the Sciathon) that allowed me to reconnect with the scientific community in the post-covid world. I will always treasure its memory because of that.
I remember very vividly the Communicating Climate Change debate, with its brilliant ideas and speakers, including Mario Molina. I had always been in awe of him, not only for being one the very few Spanish-speaking Nobel Laureates, but also because of how he had brought “the greatest benefit to humankind” by combining research and communication, with him and his colleagues crossing the bridge between the lab and real life. So seeing him (and even getting to know his dog) was quite an experience, to then learn about his sudden demise only three months later. Life is finite and fragile, for each and every one of us, and that’s what makes it so special.
I found the first ever Sciathon equally inspiring. Mixing and mingling with talented and passionate young scientists provided me with what I had missed the most during the previous months of isolation. Our team did not win the actual competition, but we had a lot of fun and we produced a scientific article on the relationship between the corona pandemic and the environmental health of our planet, of which we all were quite proud. If that is not a victory, I do not know what is.
All I ask from #LINO70 is the same that the online events of last year achieved – replenishing my motivation supplies. They are not as empty as they were a year ago, but the “Lindau magic” is so powerful that can easily help me go through the bad moments of the next entire year. Of course, the exposure to new knowledge plays a key role, but what I value the most is the interaction – with other young scientists around the globe, with Laureates, and even with a countess (as it happened to me during last year’s speed dating roulette).
Now that I am invited to the 2023 Physiology and Medicine Meeting, I am especially interested in using the 2021 event for interacting with the Laureates and young scientists that will not be in Lindau in 2023. Because of my background I really appreciate interdisciplinarity and, although corona relocated me to a single-discipline meeting, this year I still have an opportunity to meet lots of youngsters working on physics and chemistry, and to enjoy the Chus, Charpentiers, Agres, Phillips’, Barishes, Fischers, Stricklands, Whittinghams, Leggetts and the like.
About This Series
Within the next weeks you will find more young scientists who are selected for #LINO70 on the blog to learn more about their career, their research and their plans for the future.
Further articles in this series: