Double recognition of EBI scientists by the ISCB

Janet Thornton
Ewan Birney

The International Society for Computational Biology has named two scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute as the winners of its awards for 2005. Janet Thornton wins the Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award while the Overton Prize goes to Ewan Birney.

Thomas Lengauer, the ISCB’s newest Awards Committee member, says “Janet Thornton could be described as Miss Structural Bioinformatics. She has made outstanding and seminal research contributions to her field and, as director of the EBI and the coordinator of the BioSapiens Network of Excellence, has selflessly dedicated herself to developing the research landscape in computational biology. Ewan Birney is the driving force behind Ensembl, arguably the most widely used genome browser in the world”.

The ISCB’s Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award, first given in 2003 to David Sankoff (University of Ottawa) and then in 2004 to David Lipman (US National Center for Biotechnology Information, Bethesda, USA), recognizes established members of the computational biology community who have made major contributions to the field through research, education, service, or a combination of the three.

Janet Thornton’s contributions certainly fall into all three of these categories. Janet first began to collect information about protein structures when she joined the laboratory of David Phillips in Oxford in the 1970s. In 1980 she moved to work in Tom BlundellÍs department at Birkbeck College, London. During this time, she wrote many programmes to analyse several aspects of protein structures, and she developed a hierarchical system of protein structure classification. After she had taken up a chair at University College London in 1990, this system evolved into the CATH database, and is now one of the world’s most widely used protein structure databases. She was also the founding Chief Scientific Officer of Inpharmatica, a company that develops informatics-based approaches to drug discovery.

Janet has been Director of the EBI since October 2001. Her active research group focuses on using computational approaches to understand biology (especially proteins) at the molecular level, and her research combines the use of genomic, transcriptomic, structural and metabolomic data with the aim of discovering how molecules interact to perform their functions, and how these functions evolved.

Under her directorship, the EBI has expanded into several new research areas and has secured funding to provide space for its burgeoning staff base. She works tirelessly to raise awareness of the need for a stable bioinformatics infrastructure in Europe. BioSapiens, the European-Unionfunded Network of Excellence that she coordinates, is enabling bioinformaticians throughout Europe to work together and with experimental biologists to annotate genome data. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences and a Commander of the British Empire.

The Overton Prize was established in 2001 by the ISCB in memory of G. Christian Overton, a major contributor to the field of bioinformatics and member of the ISCB Board of Directors who died unexpectedly in 2000. The prize is awarded for outstanding accomplishment to a scientist in the early- to mid-stage of his or her career who has already made a significant contribution to the field of computational biology. Previous recipients are Uri Alon (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel), W. James Kent (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA), David Baker (University of Washington, Seattle, USA) and Christopher Burge (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA).

Ewan Birney trained as a biochemist at Oxford University, and did a Ph.D. in gene prediction with Richard Durbin at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, right next door to the EBI. He moved to the EBI in 2000 to coordinate the EBI’s contribution to Ensembl, a joint project with the Sanger Institute to provide a comprehensive, automatically generated annotation for the genomes of higher animals. Ensembl is widely used by biomedical researchers, serving around a million pages a week, and has been used to generate gene sets for several genomes, including human, mouse, rat and chicken.

In a collaboration with Lincoln Stein at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (NY, USA), Ewan’s team also produces Reactome – a knowledgebase of human biological pathways. Other collaborations include the ENCODE project, a detailed gene anatomy of a specified region of the human genome; and the BioSapiens Network of Excellence.

Ewan actively supports the open source movement. “Making software source code and scientific data freely available is the best way to ensure scientific progress”, he says. He is co-leader of the open-source bioinformatics toolkit Bioperl and president of the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, which supports the development of several bioinformatics toolkits. The news of his Overton prize came hot on the heels of the announcement that he has won the 2005 Benjamin Frankin Award, which recognizes scientists who advocate open access to programmes and other materials in the bioinformatics arena. This yearÍs Benjamin Franklin Award will be presented at the annual meeting of Bioinformatics.Org in Boston on 19 May.

The ISCB selects its award winners each year by soliciting nominations from the computational biology community. The ISCB Awards Committee then meets to review the merits of all nominees and unanimously decides on a recommendation of the winners to present to the ISCB Executive Committee for approval.

Janet and Ewan will give their keynote addresses at the 2005 ‘Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology’ (ISMB) meeting, in Detroit, Michigan, June 25Æ29. “Ewan and I are both thrilled that the bioinformatics community has honoured us in this way”, says Janet Thornton; “the ISCB’s unprecedented decision to award both prizes to scientists from one institute also reflects the importance of organizations like the EBI, which collect, store and distribute information for the research community.”

Tags: award, bioinformatics, computational biology, ensembl

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