Behind the walls of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, past the tidy row of white lab coats, the institute’s many DNA sequencers are working. Hulking, mini-fridge sized blocks of white, these remarkably unremarkable machines set a furious pace, and generate enormous amounts of data, for the institute that seems to echo the changing landscape of cancer research.
Here at Garvan, amidst the world-leading technology, scientists are balancing an age-old tension: meeting the many administrative needs of science, while pushing the boundaries of innovation.
Show me the money
“Money makes the world go round, and this also applies to science,” says the Garvan’s Chief of Infomatics, Dr Warren Kaplan.
In Australia, research scientists are funded by Government or philanthropic organisations and individuals. The funding process can sometimes be a lengthy one: searching for grants, writing and re-writing them with your teams, submitting and waiting. Often the grant review process is weighted towards established scientists.
For younger scientists, who don’t have an established record of success, it’s a trickier proposition.
Dr Thomas Cox, Leader of the Matrix and Metastasis group in Garvan’s Cancer Division says the competition and pressure for funding is daunting for many scientists starting out.
“When you’re a junior PI (principal investigator), you have to balance necessary paperwork with true scientific work,” he says.
“Not only are you expected to have amazing ideas, but you also have to be able to run a successful laboratory through your scientific outputs… In addition to this, there is a responsibility, rightly so, to actively engage with the community through outreach programs with fundraisers, patients and patient advocates.”
Institutes like Garvan help alleviate some of that pressure through the work of their Foundation — which funds scientists doing new, innovative projects, and assists them to connect with the community.
For scientists not lucky enough to have an institute like Garvan behind them, other recent innovations have made a pathway to help get their studies off the ground: crowd-funding website Experiment is a platform for individuals to donate towards particular projects. From cancer research to earth science, to art and design, Bill Gates has said the program is helping to close the gap on underfunded science.
Though there is perhaps a wider array of funding options available for scientists today, each relies on the fundamental power of individuals to support it.
Big Data, Bigger Challenge
Another notable challenge for current-day science, according to Kaplan and Cox, is data.
Much of the Garvan’s research involves genomic data – the information from a person’s DNA. The entire human genome contains 6 billion letters of DNA. This genomic information takes astronomical amounts of computing power to process.
“Some of the challenges we face are paying for the computing resources needed in terms of data storage and actual computation on our data,” says Kaplan, “Finding financially sustainable models for our computing needs is always a challenge.”
Cox agrees: “Cancer research has recently become very enamoured with the idea of big data. However, doing so-called ‘big science’ typically requires big money to fund the resources needed to complete it.”
To address its computing challenges, Garvan has an on-premises high-performance computing infrastructure, and partners with Australia’s national supercomputing facility, the NCI in Canberra, as well as commercial clouds – though access is limited.
DreamLab is helping to change that: launched on Android and iOS earlier this year, the app utilises the computing power of your mobile phone to help process cancer research data.
Built by the Vodafone Foundation in partnership with Garvan, the award-winning app is tackling the challenge of big data, while creating a new way for Australians to contribute towards cancer research.
You can simply plug in your phone at night, donate a few MBs of data each month (free for Vodafone Australia customers), and the calculations you solve help chip away at a piece of the cancer puzzle.1
“It’s really giving Australians a new way to engage with the science community,” says Cox.
When it comes down to it, to Kaplan, you hold the key to the future of science in Australia.
“While we, as scientists, feel very privileged to do what we do, I very much hope that the Australian public, who ultimately fund and assist with our work, feel privileged to have us working on the frontline — be it in pure scientific discovery, or in the case of Garvan, in finding ways to transform the practice of medicine.”
1 A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.
4 Minute Read