Terry Speed loves biology but is ‘a disaster in the lab’, so he focused on maths and stats.

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Ask Professor Terry Speed about the formative moment that delivered him into his stellar scientific career, and he can set the scene in an instant by inviting you to look out his office window.

His desk at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute overlooks Melbourne’s University High School, from which he graduated 55 years ago. He recalls how he was in his final year there in 1960 when the then director of the institute, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, shared the Nobel Prize for medicine. 

Burnet’s achievement planted the notion in the schoolboy’s head that a life in medical research could be rewarding and exciting. Having spent too much of his childhood in hospital dealing with chronic lung condition, he knew better than most the value of good medicine.

Though the institute was just a few strides from his school, Speed would get there the long way around, taking 37 years and a more intellectually and geographically meandering route than he could have imagined.

Foundation of mathematics, statistics and genetics

The first deviation came soon after he embarked on his studies across the road at the University of Melbourne, when Speed came to the inconvenient realization that he didn’t much enjoy looking down microscopes or dissecting rats. “I realised I just wasn’t cut out for the medical part of my degree. Basically I was a disaster in the lab.” So he switched to focus on what he loved - mathematics and statistics, though he did maintain his interest in genetics. It would prove a fortuitous foundation.

Though his PhD was in pure mathematics, “after a while I didn’t find that very satisfying, doing things on paper – I wanted something that involved people and science”. The infinite possibilities for applying his expertise delivered briefs from analysing the distribution of diamonds to crunching crime statistics. He was sought out as an expert witness to explain to juries the probabilities around DNA forensic evidence in such high profile trials as that of American footballer OJ Simpson. 

But Speed characterises these adventures as something of a sideshow to what was shaping as the main event. He had gravitated into what by the 1980s would come to be known as bioinformatics – enlisting mathematics, statistics and computing to manage the vast riches of data being mined out of exploding genetics and molecular biology. 

Speed found himself in pole position at the frontier as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1987.  The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine had just been invented, a kind of molecular photocopier producing reams of genetic information that had to be wrangled and analysed. The prospect of mapping the human genome - the book of our genetic instructions – became real. None of it could happen without bioinformatics.

He recalls it as a thrilling, high-wire time, never knowing what questions might come to the door. But after more than a decade away his wife Sally was angling to return to their hometown. Speed was reluctant – he couldn’t imagine finding work in Melbourne that would intrigue and engage.

Formidable reputation in bioinformatics

During a visit in 1996 he dropped in on his old high school friend, Professor Suzanne Cory, who had just taken over as institute director from Sir Gustav Nossal. Cory promptly offered him a job spearheading the bioinformatics that she was convinced would be critical to the institute maintaining its dominance as a premier research facility. Speed accepted, although until 2009 he would divide his time 50/50 between Melbourne and Berkeley.

“Because of the gene research happening here, there was a rapidly growing demand for people with mathematical, statistical and computational skills to work with the biological scientists, analyse the data, give them guidance as the molecular databases were expanding.” 

Speed started as a one-man show, arriving on the scene in time to give the institute the jump on many research facilities, and positioning to establish what endures as a formidable reputation in the bioinformatics field. Today the institute has about 40 people doing bioinformatics

Challenges of today 

“In 1997 we were already on a steep part of the curve,” he says. “Every year and a half over the next decade the computers were getting twice as fast, the storage capacity doubling. And whatever capacity there was, the hunger of biology to use it was unlimited. And that is still true.”

Today standard computers can barely keep up with the data being generated. Without access to clusters or super computers, it might take days for an analysis to complete. “It’s not quite a bottle neck but it is close in the sense we can generate more data than we can conveniently and efficiently analyse. We get there, but slower than we would like.”

For Speed, keeping pace intellectually has been a stimulating, if often wild challenge, all the richer for the collaboration it demands. “If you want to do something sensible with the data, you have to understand the science, you have to understand the technology that generated the data, and that involves collaboration and doing sensible things statistically or computationally. It is intrinsically interdisciplinary. It’s not just ‘give me the data and I will put it in a program’ - you really have to get your head around the biology, and the machines, because they all have idiosyncrasies, and you have to factor those in.”

People in white coats doing great deeds

Over his time at the institute Speed has worked on diverse projects, from questions of genetics and human disease (mulitiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer and malaria among them) to the genomics of kangaroos and platypus’ to untangling the evolutionary relationships between mice and humans. “I’m a lover of biology, I love evolution.”

And he loves that in the end he is contributing to at the kind of medicine that excited him as a boy, enlisting the analysis of molecular data to refine disease prognosis, improve drugs and therapies, and assist in directing patients to the best treatment, 

“When you are a school kid and see someone get a Nobel Prize, that’s what I would characterise as uninformed inspiration. You see people in white coats doing great deeds, curing illnesses. It’s a bit of a fairy story really because hardly anyone here saves any lives – we write papers, we write grant applications.” 

Of course, he says, there are exceptions like the institute’s Professor Don Metcalf, whose lifelong work on CSFs (colony stimulating factors) has benefited more than 20 million cancer patients. But Speed recognises such explicit consequences of laboratory grunt work as the exception. Mostly the work “is slow, and it is rarely about single breakthroughs or single people, its about teams.

“Most of us further our own careers and maybe help others in theirs. We add to the corpus of knowledge. Most of us are not standouts who can tick off their meaningful contributions to the well being of humanity. But when you are a kid that seems like a possibility, and it is still a driving force.

“I would still rather be working here than doing anything else. I am much more interested in doing something in science….. You’re doing some good, potentially at least.”