Five questions for Martin Leach

Haley Bridger, August 12th, 2011 | Filed under

At the Broad, collaboration is king. But in order to share ideas and data, scientists need a robust infrastructure that can support the volume and speed at which results are produced. That’s where Chief Information Officer Martin Leach and his team of experts in information technology and research computing come in. Their goal is to provide the software and technology that will enable the best collaboration experience, which will in turn accelerate groundbreaking science to transform medicine.

Martin Leach joined the Broad in May 2011 following four years at Merck & Co. At a Bio-IT World Expo conference this spring, he delivered a lecture on what we can learn from video games about how to reward positive behavior, even in the lab (you can watch it here). Martin answered five questions about IT at the Broad, his path here, and lessons that can be learned from the world of gaming.

Martin Leach

Image by Maria Nemchuk, Broad Communications

Q1: What are some of the biggest or most unique challenges in computing and information technology that the Broad faces?

ML: One of the challenges is that we are doing things that people haven’t done yet in life sciences. We can’t always find a well-polished solution that someone has already done before. Or we have to bring in technology that no one has either used for that purpose or stretched to the limits that we’re going to stretch it to.

The scale of what we’re doing in life sciences is so different that it makes it a challenge to have a solution that’s readily available and easy. We have to do a lot more problem solving.

Q2: Can you give us an example of this scale?

ML: We have just surpassed the 10-petabyte stage in terms of capacity – how much we can store. We haven’t got that completely filled yet, but it’s on its way, as usual. What is a petabyte? That’s a million gigabytes. Your typical hard drive is 500 gigabytes. If you double that you have a terabyte. If you times that by 1,000, you have a petabyte. We have ten of those.

Q3: You’ve worked for a number of impressive employers, including Jonathan Rothberg, the founder of the genome sequencer companies 454 and Ion Torrent, and the consulting firm BoozAllen. What have you learned from these experiences?

ML: The power of building a network and getting things done by leveraging it. I built my network on LinkedIn, and I virtually knew people in all of the companies around here. I now hold a monthly IT JAM – short for “just another meeting,” like JAK, “just another kinase.” We invite people from Biogen Idec, Amgen, Novartis, Whitehead, Harvard, MIT – and depending on the topic, they all come. It’s trying to bring together this local network so that you can share with each other: this is how we do it, this is how you do it. It’s the power of the network. It’s all about collaboration but trying to do it in a non-competitive, open-innovation kind of way within IT.

Q4: You earned a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology from Boston University School of Medicine. How did you make the transition from science to IT?

ML: I worked for the British government for a year, and we were doing work on the genetics of schizophrenia and looking at the mutations associated with mad-cow disease.

As part of that, to actually analyze the DNA sequence back in 1989, we didn’t have any compute infrastructure so I had to basically figure out a way to leverage MIT’s. I had the patience and I had the desire to try to use computers. And then you are the expert on computers. Similarly, when I went to BU Med, I was the only one who had that knowledge. I had to set it up for everyone, show everyone else how to do it.

Q5: In your Bio-IT World Expo lecture, you talk about lessons that can be learned from the world of gaming. How did you become interested in the connection between gaming and the life sciences?

ML: I’ve worked with several people thinking about the psychology of change, and I play video games. I have every gaming platform you can think of. About five years ago I started thinking about what some of these games do. The way they make you work in a game is they constantly are reinforcing your behavior. You did a good job, here you go, you got a badge or medal, or you’re at the next level. Or you can only jump and run until you get to a certain proficiency, now you’ve got the jetpack and you can fly. Reward and recognition are important to encourage people. Once I get more established here, I'd love to take some of the lessons learned and see how we incorporate feedback, using technology, in how things are done at Broad.
 

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Smart technology intelligently applied to clinical development will improve efficiency and reduce costs. The one area we have negelcted so far is how to really engage site staff. Video game designers know exactly how to do that. I've written about this elsewhere. We can, and should, apply video game techniques to engage coordinators and investigators. EDC is a great platform to bundle information and technologies. We shouldn't settle for making systems easy and painless, but rather compelling. The best system on the planet is worth nothing if people don't want to use it. Let the games begin!
Thanks for this insightful article. Would request Martin to check out the book Total Engagement by Leighton Read. He may find some interesting coherence between his views on gaming vis-a-vis psychology of incentives
The Broad and Martin seem to be made for each other. They both have bold visions for life science and IT.