Cancer Data Science Pulse

CBIIT Welcomes Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan as the New Associate Director for Informatics and Data Science

On May 24, CBIIT welcomed Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan (@NCIJBSloan), the new associate director for Informatics and Data Science. She will oversee activities of the Clinical and Translational Research Informatics Branch, the Data Ecosystems Branch, and the Computational Genomics and Bioinformatics Branch. She also will serve as an intramural NCI researcher in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, Trans-Divisional Research Program, where she will continue to pursue a robust research agenda in descriptive epidemiology and etiology of brain tumors. 

In this latest Q&A blog, Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan tells a little about herself, including what brought her to CBIIT, what keeps her centered, and what makes her most proud.

How did you first become interested in data science?

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved mathematics and data. I was lucky to have math teachers in junior and senior high who encouraged my love of math. And my decision to get a master’s degree in statistics was largely based on my experience taking two mathematical statistics classes as an undergraduate. It was during this time I discovered the applied disciplines for statistics. I realized I could put my mathematical skills to work in medicine and have a positive impact on disease. This led me to pursue a doctorate in biostatistics, forever changing my path in life.

In your view, what’s the most important initiative for CBIIT?

By building ecosystems like the Cancer Research Data Commons (CRDC), CBIIT has been at the forefront of making data and a variety of tools publicly available, thereby allowing investigators from around the world to use these rich data resources to test hypotheses. I have personal experience with these resources too and have used them in multiple publications. I’ve also used data sets from CRDC to show trainees how to conduct bioinformatics analysis and clinical outcomes modeling.

The next steps will be to make these data even more useful. CBIIT is leading efforts in organizing and standardizing data. By integrating all types of data (clinical, DNA, RNA, proteins, imaging, etc.), researchers will be able to make critical discoveries, changing the way we diagnose and treat cancer. Gaining a better understanding of the hallmark molecular alterations in each cancer type will give us an even clearer pathway toward precision medicine.

What is the biggest obstacle(s) facing data science and IT today?

The speed at which data is generated and the types of data we’re producing are overwhelming! Approaches to handle the pace of discovery and data variety are critical for continued success in data science and IT. Integrating and harmonizing all these data will be critical for data sharing, making complex data widely available and most useful.  

I’m a firm believer that “the more minds involved, the bigger impact we can have.” Cancer is such a complex disease. We all need to work together if we’re to find better ways of diagnosing, preventing, and treating this disease. This includes all disciplines within medical and basic sciences, as well as partnerships between NCI/NIH, Big Pharma, entrepreneurs, academic medical centers. They all have unique perspectives, and each has an important story to tell.

In addition to your work as associate director, you’ll be continuing your research into the descriptive epidemiology and etiology of brain tumors. What first interested you in this area of research?

Brain tumors are rare and can be malignant or non-malignant, but they contribute disproportionately to morbidity and mortality. In addition, they impact individuals at all ages. I started working in brain tumor epidemiology as an R25 fellow at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I was blessed to have an incredible mentor, Dr. Melissa Bondy, now chair of Epidemiology at Stanford Medical School. She helped me learn the scientific process and how to think critically. She taught me the importance of being a good mentor. She also introduced me to my husband! Dr. Bondy and I have continued to collaborate scientifically and have remained close friends. 

You’ve shared a lot about your professional journey. What do you like to do outside of work? Any favorite activities or hobbies?

I love music and always have it playing! I spend a lot of time walking my dog, a 3-year-old chocolate Labrador named Duke, especially in the woods by our house. We typically venture out early in the morning when no one else is around. (We are both early risers!) I’ve found being outside in nature gives me the space I need to gather my thoughts. It gives me a fresh perspective on my upcoming workday, clearing my head so that I can be more effective in all my roles—mother, wife, scientist, and collaborator.

Personally and professionally, what would you say have been your greatest or fondest accomplishments?

Personally, my greatest accomplishment is being a mom to my 16-year-old son. He is kind, thoughtful, and inquisitive.  After we lost a dear friend to cancer, and his summer plans were ruined because of COVID-19, he turned a collection of his original recipes into a cookbook, which he published to raise money for cancer research. Not only is he honoring the memory of all the people we’ve lost to cancer, but he is also “paying it forward” by donating 75% of the book’s proceeds to St. Jude and the American Association for Cancer Research.

Professionally, one of my greatest accomplishments has been my involvement with The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and the Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium, two resources that are helping to further define the molecular underpinnings of cancer itself. Insight into these cancer-relevant pathways is changing how brain tumors are diagnosed, and ultimately will impact how we treat these tumors.

I’m also thankful to have had the opportunity to be a part of so many teams whose work has led to paradigm shifts in understanding cancer. For example, in brain tumors, the work done through TCGA in glioblastoma and lower grade glioma has provided insight into key molecular features that are proving vital in diagnosing these tumors. 

To learn more about Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan, her education and expertise, view her biography.

Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, Ph.D.
Associate director for Informatics and Data Science, CBIIT
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