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Dana Vanderwall: Conquering Data Space

Captivated by informatics and analytics, this biochemist-turned-IT-guy shaped his career around digging information out of the facts and figures generated in the laboratory. He describes his journey as a progression from one interesting problem to the next. 

Dana Vanderwall, Ph.D., points out a funny aspect of cheminformatics. “Sometimes we have to draw from areas outside our own domain for perspective and expertise. For example, some of the key measures we use to study similarities between molecules, clustering molecules or understanding a large data space actually come from psychology and sociology,” he says. “Social sciences algorithms and the thought that goes into them doesn’t have anything to do with drug discovery or the kind of data we produce in the lab, but it can fuel our problem-solving.”

Vanderwall loves solving problems. He loves promoting good ideas even more, whether in his role as director of biology and preclinical IT at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), where he leads multidisciplinary teams in scientific and informatic initiatives, or as SLAS2017 co-chair, an honor he shares with Marcie Glicksman, Ph.D., of ORIG3N, Boston, MA.

“There are few things that frustrate me as much as someone’s good idea being stuck,” Vanderwall says. “No one’s picking up on it, no one’s leveraging it, no one’s getting it out.” He thrives at the intersection of scientific disciplines and the opportunity to bring a notion to life. At BMS, he acts as an interface between the scientists in the lab, who are generating and interpreting data, and the technical community that supports how the data is analyzed. “It’s dynamic when you gather diverse perspectives and people articulate the challenges they are facing and the problems they are trying to solve,” he explains.

He likes the diversity and understands both sides of the conversation. “I have done almost everything in the lab at some point or another. I have cloned, purified proteins, grown cells, synthesized molecules, run kinetics and done sequencing,” he explains. It was good preparation for his career, even if he felt undertrained on the technology end at times.

“I am sometimes envious when I read about other people’s careers where it seems logical and very well planned,” says Vanderwall with a laugh. “Although I tend to take my own background for granted, I do appreciate my career experiences as I interact with people whose backgrounds are more specific to disciplines such as engineering and software development.”

The Road to Informatics

To get that valuable knowledge, he needed to move his biochemistry background into informatics and analytics. Vanderwall developed a knack for reaching out to other life sciences discovery and technology professionals, even while still an undergraduate.

He started his college years as a business major with a music minor (the once serious drummer now only picks up the sticks for recreation). A curiosity with neurochemistry led Vanderwall to switch his major and his educational institution. Moving from the University of Northern Colorado to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he landed work in the lab of renowned biochemistry Professor W.W. Cleland, who made many influential contributions to the field of enzymology.

“I got interested in biochemistry and enzymology working in Cleland’s lab,” Vanderwall explains. When he moved on to graduate work at University of Maryland he joined the laboratory of John Kozarich, Ph.D.  “We were studying the interaction between an anti-cancer drug, Bleomycin, and DNA, specifically its cancer-killing ability to break DNA. The team had been working on that at a mechanistic level for years.”

Vanderwall was drawn to studying the data collected through their research. Kozarich’s team and their collaborators in Joanne Stubbe’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) already had volumes of evidence to support various hypotheses for the mechanism of DNA cleavage by the Bleomycin, but to better understand how the drug was bound and the chemistry of the DNA interaction, Vanderwall felt he knew what was needed to move forward and put the mechanistic data into a broader context.

“I thought that the only way we could understand what the next steps should be was if we had a three-dimensional structure of what the thing looked like bound to DNA,” he explains. To do this, Vanderwall needed to learn computational chemistry to build models of the complex. This pursuit ultimately led him to a colleague Wei Wu in the Stubbe lab at MIT, who found conditions under which they could study the structure of Bleomycin bound to DNA using magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In a unique collaboration, Vanderwall was able to use the NMR data generated at MIT to model the 3D structures of the drug-DNA complex.

“The computational chemistry I learned became my whole thesis. The lab work was in there, but it was almost a footnote. Looking at the data and figuring out what to do next drove my transition into informatics,” explains Vanderwall, who went on to earn a doctoral degree in biochemistry from University of Maryland College Park.

He decided he was ready for another change after graduation. “While I enjoyed lab work, I got to a point where I was tired of all the time spent prepping and making buffers and such – the work you do before you actually begin the interesting portion of experimentation,” he explains. Vanderwall opted for a three-year post-doctoral stint in computational chemistry at Merck followed by five years of work at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), both of which led him deeper still into interesting data space conundrums.

“Each time we got to a similar point in the research where I had been before. We had a broad series of targets with a lot of multivariate data. The drug discovery teams had a hard time understanding the patterns of this data and how to digest it,” he explains, adding that he found himself moving into broad multi-dimensional data sets and analytic approaches to deal with multivariate data.

“It was a niche thing, not true IT, although we partnered with software developers and database engineers,” Vanderwall says. “Because I continually found myself in areas with which I had very little experience or formal training, I was fortunate to have teams and collaborators around me who knew the area. You should respect the depth of knowledge you don’t have and find the right people who know that aspect of science all the way to the roots.”

In the early 2000s, Vanderwall jumped at an opportunity at GSK to initiate a group to support systems biology efforts and specifically to seek a way to apply data from the purely biology domain to the chemistry domain. “We wanted to subtly direct the next compound that people were making and take an almost structure-activity relationship (SAR) approach to understanding the multiomics output,” Vanderwall explains.

Eventually this type of work landed Vanderwall in his current position at BMS, a firm step into a research IT role with a focus more broadly on tools and general capabilities that chemists and drug discovery teams need to understand data. With it, he continues the team approach to research and problem solving.

“There used to be a perception that science is a lone genius toiling away at night to solve a problem,” Vanderwall observes. “There are often times when a particular problem requires deep thought, but there’s a lot of evidence in the literature that points to the fact that innovation tends to come from collaboration.”

Stepping Away from One Office and into Another

Collaboration is what makes his work with SLAS2017 such a fulfilling experience. He enjoys the involvement of the community at large. “It’s a nice mix of participation from all walks of life sciences – pharmaceutical companies, instrument vendors, automation and software, and those from academics. I haven’t found other communities or collaborative platforms that are as versatile and balanced as SLAS,” says Vanderwall.

He adds that being conference co-chair is fantastic. “We have a great group of track and session chairs for this year’s event, as well as many great abstracts,” continues Vanderwall, who also co-chairs the SLAS Standards Initiatives Special Interest Group with 2016 SLAS Europe Council chair Burkhard Schaefer. This group, which will meet during SLAS2017, promotes standardization and interoperability of instruments and data systems in the laboratory.

As he came up through the ranks in SLAS International Conference and Exhibition, first as a session chair and then as a track chair before becoming co-chair, what impressed Vanderwall the most was the wealth of thought. “That’s one of the things I found in my early involvement as a session chair–the amazing scope of ideas you see growing and getting promoted out there. The only downside is that there are so many good abstracts, it’s difficult to sort them out and maintain the priorities set for each session within the event,” he says. In fact, SLAS2017, to be held Feb. 4-8, 2017 in Washington, DC, received a record number of abstract submissions from professionals interested in sharing their achievements.

“SLAS provides us with vehicles for sharing great ideas,” Vanderwall says. “For SLAS2017, we want people to build a network that will ultimately lead to collaboration that leads to more innovation.”

Another outlet for Vanderwall’s collaborative work, or as he calls it “stepping out of the office and into another office,” is the Allotrope Foundation, a group that focuses on data integrity and reproducibility. “We concentrate on problems whose solutions help us get more value from our data,” he explains. “Much like my work at BMS, in Allotrope I work with scientists, developers and engineers from 12 different companies and upward of 30 different vendors and academic institutions. While it takes a lot of time, it leaves me refreshed to go back to my day job!”

Vanderwall also enjoys business travel in much the same way. As work takes him to different places, such as a day-trip to Boston or a  speaking opportunity at an overseas conference, he finds it clears his mind. “Getting into a different environment is refreshing,” Vanderwall says, adding that the very best place to best clear his head, however, is outdoors. Hiking, biking and kayaking for fun with his family help Vanderwall recharge.

His 2016 travels found the family in a 1920s cabin on the tip of an island near Maine’s Acadia National Park. “The cabin had electricity and running water, but that was it. It was a bit more off the grid than we usually do,” he says, describing typical family vacations as beach excursions to North Carolina or visits to his parents’ home in his native Colorado.

As Vanderwall and his wife guided three teenagers through the week in Maine without the usual selection of screens and electronics, the family unit began to adjust and enjoy their time together. But it was not without a few technology bumps in the road. “Apparently in SnapChat they don’t have the concept of an out-of-office message! Nor does the community respect the concept. The expectation is that you are always there,” he laughs.

“We did occasionally drive around and find an area with sufficient data access on the cellular network so that everything could refresh and everyone could plug in for a little while,” Vanderwall acknowledges. “But we still walked away feeling great. You could feel ourselves breathing better on the second day and thinking much clearer than when we first arrived.”

November 7, 2016