Biomedical scientist Braden Tierney is working to translate human microbiome data into disease predictors - he explains how failure has shaped him into a better scientist.
The microbiome comprises all the genetic material within the micro-organisms inside our bodies. The focus of my work is translating human microbiome research into the clinic, with huge potential to advance disease diagnosis, prediction, and therapeutics. During my Ph.D. thesis, I used tools from statistics, computer science, and microbiology to extract and analyze microbiome data. By integrating this data with complex machine learning, we were able to both characterize new classes of microbial genes and identify sets of genes that were diagnostic for multiple human diseases.
Early in my Ph.D., I wanted to take a high-level class in machine learning, though I met none of the course prerequisites. When I asked the instructor, he approved my request, telling me that, in his opinion, all one would need to complete the class was a measure of ‘grit’. I enrolled, and I failed assignment after assignment. However, he ended up being right, at least in part – after titanic effort, I eventually passed. However, without the support of my lab and friends, doing so would not have been possible. Looking back at my career thus far, I see similar trends -- chasms of failure interspersed between occasional peaks of success that are driven by a combination of perseverance and teamwork. Overall, failure keeps me humble, driving forward, and ready for what is coming next. I know that underneath the excitement and the uncertainty of a new challenge, I can bank on both an iron foundation of grit and the incredible scientists around me.
Without question, my passion for science is driven by my brilliant teammates. The buy-in they have to our mission is inspiring. We are confident that microbial genetics, and data science in general, is positioned to revolutionize personalized medicine. The ability to depend on the team’s enthusiasm has kept me going during my most difficult times, and together, we are able to execute analyses that we could never achieve alone.
Q: What kind of mindset do you need to achieve the Next Great Impossible?
A: To venture outside of your comfort zone, I believe you need grit and a good team. Even when you fail, you will know that you gave it everything, and you'll do it with people who care about the outcome just as much as you.