Twelve Questions: Alexei Drummond

Biologist Alexei Drummond has designed computer software that’s transformed the study of biology worldwide. The 39-year-old University of Auckland professor recently became the youngest fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

1 Did you grow up with science?

Dad's a quantum physicist and mum's an artist. They met at Harvard " he's a Kiwi and she's American. Of their four children, two are biologists and two are musicians " we're all creative.

2 When did you learn to programme computers?

When I was 8, Dad bought me a Commodore 64. He was living in a tiny flat in the city after separating from mum. Back then there was no mouse or internet, just a blinking cursor on a blue screen. I began typing in pages of code from computer magazines without really knowing what they meant, hoping to be able to play a game by the end of the weekend. Eventually I was recognising commands that cropped up again and again and began modifying the code to change the games. I became convinced a computer could do anything if only it was programmed the right way. Genetic engineering and cloning naturally appealed to me. As an undergraduate I was determined to learn how to reprogram myself to live as long as possible. I wrote sci-fi and really wanted to find out what would happen in the future.

3 You've been in the news lately with your study using mobile phone data to track how the flu virus spreads - how did you get into that?

I'm an evolutionary biologist and what's nice about viruses is they evolve a million times faster than humans so you can see evolution occurring. Influenza in two years will be as different from today as humans are from chimpanzees. Every winter a new flu arrives in New Zealand on a plane or a boat. We're trying to understand how it spreads. The H1N1 pandemic in 2009 occurred mainly in NZ's main centres the first year and mainly in the regions the next, which is peculiar - you'd expect it to go everywhere the first time - so that suggests some complexities. Our initial research shows it's multiple events that set off parallel outbreaks with significant differences in strains between regions. Knowing where and how fast a virus like flu spreads will be useful if a more lethal virus arrives.

4 How will you use computer software to study the flu's spread?

Mobile phone data shows us how many people move between areas and how close together they get. We also have rich genetic data on the flu virus which evolves so rapidly we can identify where and when each mutation occurred. If we can write software that puts these two sets of data together in the right way we should get a lot of predictive power.

5 How did you get into making software for biologists?

When I started my PhD in the biology department 16 years ago, I was almost the only one who could program a computer. I was surprised they didn't have easy-to-use software for the kinds of operations they needed to do - like Excel for biologists. They were doing it all manually and making errors every time they had to convert data between formats. It was terrible.

6 What's been your most important contribution to science so far?

Creating the scientific software BEAST which is used for data analysis by thousands of biologists worldwide to publish groundbreaking research. I developed the ideas and did the early programming during my PhD here at the University of Auckland and then went to Oxford and worked with Andrew Rambaut to co-create BEAST. Since our paper was published, that software's been cited in something like 10,000 different studies. It's free for all scientists to use.

7 What does your company Biomatters do?

Biomatters develops software to sell to pharmaceutical companies, bio-techs and universities. It is used for data management and visualisation for problems including genetics, ancestry, ecology, conservation, population studies and infectious diseases. Every Top 100 university in the world has our licences.

8 Was it hard to set up a company?

I couldn't get research funding to develop the software because although it supports science it's not actually research. I got very depressed until an entrepreneurial friend of mine pitched it to an Auckland investment group called Ice Angels. The first couple of years were hard. We were terrible at sales and marketing so it was convincing one scientist at a time. There's no way I could've built that software in an academic environment. There's not the motivation to make the customer experience smooth and effortless. What I love most about our company is we're sending high-value products to the other side of the world at almost no cost to the environment. You never hear about the "knowledge economy" in New Zealand anymore. It seems like we just want to fit in as many cows as we can.

9 Is New Zealand looking after its scientists?

New Zealand has a high number of scientists per capita but we invest two or three times less per scientist than comparable countries. There's been a huge sea change in the approach to science funding in the past 10 years, requiring research to demonstrate economic benefits to New Zealanders. World-class scientists value being able to pursue the most important problems in the world regardless of where they're based. If they can't solve them here, they'll leave and New Zealand will miss out on the spillover benefits. Small advanced economies that [prioritise] science research like Scandinavia and Singapore do way better than us.

10 Why do you stay in New Zealand?

So my son can grow up with wide open spaces, beautiful beaches, bush walks and hiking in the mountains. I'm also excited to be launching a new Centre of Computational Evolution here this year.

11 Are you religious?

Humans aren't going to last forever, no species ever has. It's hard for me to believe there's anything afterwards. I'm a collection of atoms that are going to become dirt and stardust. What's beautiful about science is that you're adding a little bit of knowledge that will survive you. Even if it's wrong, it's a step that you're taking for the rest of humanity.

12 Do you have fears for the future of our planet?

For many people the "truth" of economic growth being good is stronger than science, but in the natural world we've seen a million times that when you grow exponentially for too long, you get a massive crash. I find it disgusting that in my generation or the next, humans may precipitate a mass extinction the likes of which have not been seen for 65 million years. I'm also bewildered by how we can call ourselves intelligent when billions of our fellow humans live in abject poverty.

- NZ Herald

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