Pathways to the new biology: Joel Graber, Ph.D.

Dr. Joel GraberJackson Laboratory Associate Professor Joel Graber, Ph.D., was on a straight physics track for many years. His dual undergraduate major in physics and computer science led to a Ph.D., then multiple post-docs in experimental accelerator physics. Unexpectedly, it had also prepared him well for his current career in bioinformatics.

Graber shifted his focus soon after Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider project in Texas in the early 1990s, and accelerator funding in general became scarce. He was moving to Boston for personal reasons, and while there were compelling opportunities in the area, they were outside of his field. During his search, a friend recommended he contact geneticist Charles Cantor at Boston University’s Center for Advanced Biotechnology.

“Cantor was known for hiring people with different backgrounds, and my record showed I was adaptable and able to solve problems,” says Graber. “I was talking with other places as well and had another offer from a biotech company, but working at B.U. was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Soon enough he also learned that Temple Smith, one of the founders of the field of bioinformatics, worked one floor up from him. It was a time when not many biologists knew what to do with lots of data, although “lots” represented thousands of DNA sequence data points at the time, not the billions of today. Graber collaborated with Smith and set to work to make sense of the data.

Today, the basic concepts remain the same, but the data have changed. “The data sets have gotten much bigger and there’s more variety to them,” says Graber. “Sequence, expression, epigenetic, and other data all need to be integrated. It’s getting to be like physics in that the problems are too big for one or two investigators to handle, so it will take teams to solve them. In a way, it’s more challenging than physics, because there the data grew slowly over decades. In biology it’s just exploded in the last ten years, making it very difficult to keep up.”

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