Professor Dr Joost Kok
Scientific Director Leiden Institute for Advanced Computer Science (LIACS), Leiden University
"You don't need a Ferrari when you stay on local roads."
1. What is the leading research theme in your group?
"Develop new algorithms as a smart way to get more information out of data. We work with real data, but our research is mostly explorative. Our basis is in machine learning and data mining; we generate new hypotheses, which we subsequently test on real data. But it is not just a one-way process, real data is also a source of inspiration to us. We do not only work on biological problems. Recently, we worked on a construction-engineering project. To us, the challenge is not only in the size of a data set, but also in the complexity. And in taking the final step towards the end user. We want to generate analysis results that can be used by biologists and medical researchers."
2. With what type of groups or organisations do you collaborate most and why?
"Although we are not exclusively linked to life sciences research, our main focus is on biological data. We participate in several large-scale European research projects in which we collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry. In the Netherlands, we are involved in the e-BioGrid, together with our colleagues in Amsterdam and through NBIC, we got involved in the Dutch bioinformatics community."
3. From your research perspective, what are the main challenges in bioinformatics right now?
"We are confronted with more data than we can handle, while at the same time we don't have enough data to come up with proper answers to the biological questions we are studying. We are basically lagging behind the technological possibilities. How can we keep up? Computing power will increase and that is one way, but we also need smarter algorithms. But there is also a need for an attitude change. Not every experiment or analysis needs the absolute state of the art bioinformatics approach. This is perhaps a bit dangerous to say, but not every researchers needs the most fancy tools available. You don't need a Ferrari when you stay on local roads."
4. What is the most important task of a group leader?
"To maintain the general course and have a good overview of all activities, so that you can spot opportunities for applications in or connections with other disciplines. That is the management part, but there is also lot of psychology involved. The human aspect in group dynamics is essential and as group leader you need to support and coach the members of your team, pay attention to their needs and questions and create a sense of enthusiasm."
5. Where do you see room for improvement in your group?
"It would be nice to have a little more time to reflect on the choices made, but that probably goes for many research groups. On a more general level, I feel that the way universities are organised and are dealing with performance criteria is not in line with the way modern research is organised. A research group is no longer only focused on scientific breakthroughs. Especially in informatics and bioinformatics, your contribution to a project is not always very challenging or very visible, but it is essential nonetheless. However, such activities are not highly valued in the classic academic scheme where only papers in top journals count. This mismatch is also related to the career prospects of for example scientific programmers. They are crucial to this research area, but as yet are placed outside the conventional academic career development process. That is something we need to pay attention to."