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Age Smilde

Prof dr. Age Smilde

" There is so much we don't know that a quantitative description on a systems level is still very far away."

Biosystems Data Analysis group, Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, University of Amsterdam
Group size: 12-15

1. What is the leading research theme in your group?
"We don't pursue a specific biological question, but we develop methods and models to understand complex biological networks. We work with time-resolved, multivariate data that result from functional genomics platforms, such as metabolomics and proteomics. We try to make our models as explicit as possible, which means incorporating a priori knowledge. To this end, we closely collaborate with biologists to gain essential knowledge on the networks we try to capture in a model."

2. With what type of groups or organisations do you collaborate most and why?
"Biological research groups provide the questions and data for our research. With academic groups, we focus on medical topics. For one day a week, I myself work at the Academic Medical Centre here in Amsterdam. With our industrial partners, the focus is mostly on projects related to food and microbiology. When it comes to the more analytical chemistry part of the measurements, we collaborate with parties like NMC and NPC. With system biology groups, for example within the NISB, we work together on methodology, with the Biometris group in Wageningen we work on statistics and of course within NBIC, we have partnerships on bioinformatics topics. A rather special and longstanding collaboration is in place with researchers in psychometrics. This is the area where some of the multivariate analysis tools we use were originally developed."

3. From your research perspective, what are the main challenges in bioinformatics right now?
"The multiscale problem is a major challenge. It is the problem that, for example, arises when you want to couple various measurements on different levels in the body. There are still many conceptual problems to tackle. How do you translate measurements on the cellular level and thus on the cellular timescale to the level of organs and beyond. How do these basic signals get transformed into phenotypic properties? And how does feedback to the cellular level take place? There is so much we don't know that a quantitative description on a systems level is still very far away."

4. What is the most important task of a group leader?
"I see two main tasks. The first is to motivate people and give everyone the feeling that they are part of a team that works towards a communal goal. The second is to make clear choices on what the focus of the group should be and thus ensure a strong and visible profile of the group."

5. How would you describe the atmosphere in your group?
[Laughs] "I think the atmosphere is very open and informal, but you should ask my PhD students if they see it that way as well. Apart from that, everyone is very motivated. People work really hard around here."

Text by Esther Thole.