Cancer Data Science Pulse

Spotlight on CBIIT Staff: Mervi Heiskanen

In this new blog installment, the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology (CBIIT) shines a spotlight on the staff who are working to turn data and IT resources into solutions for addressing data-driven cancer research. Look for new staff spotlights in the coming months as we explore the varied backgrounds and expertise that go into building, maintaining, and improving the infrastructure and use of Big Data at NCI.

This first “Spotlight” features Mervi Heiskanen, Ph.D., program manager in the Cancer Informatics Branch at CBIIT. Much of her work focuses on data sharing and creating the tools and resources that help to make open data a reality.  

Question: What drew you to the field of data/bioinformatics/information technology?

As a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland I studied biology. I had a deep interest in plants and animals that later shifted to genetics. I became aware of the opportunities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, in particular, at the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). My knowledge of NHGRI was partly through meeting Drs. Francis Collins, Jeffrey Trent, and Eric Lander as a young scientist, and from my other contacts at the university.

I came to NIH for post-doctorate work. I worked at the bench developing microarray technologies from 1996 to 2000. Through that experience I learned that while it was relatively easy to produce microarray data, it was much harder to find skilled scientists who could write the algorithms and do the bioinformatics side of this data work.

Today everyone understands the importance of informatics and data sharing. But that was not the case two decades ago. This was still such a new area of study. We didn’t have staff trained in analyses who could keep up with this new technology, which often created a real bottleneck in the science. I have always been a strong proponent for open data sharing. I wanted to help solve this problem and make it easier and faster to share that information. 

You currently work as a project manager in the Cancer Informatics Branch. What key projects have you been involved with at CBIIT?

For the past 3 years I’ve helped to develop and then maintain NCI’s Community Hub (formerly known as the Informatics Program [NCIP] Hub). This site serves as a central location or “hub” where users can share resources, connect through online communities, and access a variety of collaboration tools.

For the past decade I’ve worked to support the caNanoLab database, which promotes the management and sharing of nanotechnology data. I also support the Informatics Technology of Cancer Research Program, a trans-NCI program that develops informatics technologies to support basic and translational cancer research. 

All of these resources are geared to promoting and encouraging open data sharing, analysis, and collaboration.

Question: Where do you see the field headed in the next decade?

When I started in this field in the late 1990s we were only beginning to explore ways to share data. Through the work of pioneering societies such as the Microarray Gene Expression Databases or MGED society (renamed to the Functional Genomics Data [FGED] Society in 2010), we developed concrete processes and rules for making data sharing possible on a much larger scale.

Today we’re poised to take the idea of open data to an even greater global network. We also are working toward giving individual scientists and volunteers (i.e., citizen scientists) an equal opportunity to make significant contributions. Through these new connections we hope to see the community come together to solve some of the most pressing issues of the day.

The current COVID-19 pandemic, for example, shows how many countries are pooling knowledge and resources to combat this public health threat. People are cooperating, without thought of compensation or recognition, and private citizens as well as scientists at NIH all are striving to make a difference. This is at the heart of open data and the open source movement—global access and data sharing to address the issues that most impact public health.

Question: When you think about your work over the past 18 years at NCI’s CBIIT, is there an area that stands out to you the most? Or, is there an area where you feel you’ve made the most difference?

I think on more than one particular project or initiative, it was the chance I had to meet and work with so many smart people! I’ve found that people who are interested in IT and informatics are, in general, forward thinking and driven to succeed. They want to do the latest and greatest things. (Over the years, I’ve often been told I have a talent for getting along with people and am good at diplomacy.) I love to form collaborations with many diverse people and to find ways to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and their hard work is recognized. This was particularly the case in working on supporting data submissions to the NCI databases, in which collaborations are so important for success. In the end, this is what made our work successful and what I’ll remember the most.

Question: You plan to retire at the end of May. Are there activities you’re most looking forward to after retirement?

All my career I’ve focused on science and technology. I think now I’d like to explore the other side and learn more about the humanities. I have several friends who are artists and I’ve always longed to have their knowledge of art and history. My desire to learn more about these topics likely is reinforced by the fact that I live so close to the Smithsonian museums. I’d like to start there, learn more about the arts, and develop that side more.

Growing up in Finland, I was very close to nature. I’ve always loved the outdoors, gardening, and animals. Perhaps someday I’ll live in another country, learn a new language, or return to Finland, although the winters there are very cold! I’m proud of the work we’ve done here at CBIIT, but I’m also very excited to embark on this next part of my life.

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