Cancer Data Science Pulse
Spotlight on Staff—Allen Dearry Reflects on His Time at CBIIT
After 31 years at NIH, Allen Dearry, Ph.D., will be retiring on December 31, 2021. Dr. Dearry currently serves as program director for NCI’s Cancer Research Data Commons, a vast cloud-based infrastructure coordinated by NCI’s Center for Biomedical Informatics and Information Technology (CBIIT). Prior to moving to NCI’s CBIIT, Dr. Dearry worked for 25 years at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where he received three DHHS Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards. Throughout his tenure at NIH, Dr. Dearry has been a pioneer in the field, serving on several trans-NIH and interagency committees on bioinformatics and computational biology, including co-chair of the federal Big Data Interagency Work Group. In this blog, we asked Dr. Dearry to take a few moments to reflect on his career, his time at NCI, and the data science field. He also offers a glimpse into what his life will look like after he leaves public service later this month.
What drew you to the field of data science?
I took a rather roundabout path to arrive at this place in data science. I originally trained and did research as a cellular/molecular biologist. My graduate research at the University of Pennsylvania was on the mechanisms underlying visual transduction (that is, how rods and cones in the retina convert light to a biochemical and then electrical signal). In my postdoctoral work at the University of California-Berkeley, I looked at the role of dopamine in the vertebrate retina. I then went to Duke University as an assistant professor, where I led the team that cloned the gene for a D1 dopamine receptor.
Back in those “dark ages,” you were lucky to sequence maybe 100–200 nucleotides in every extension reaction. Terminated sequences were detected radiographically on polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE), with a lightbox and pencil and paper. That was my introduction to data science and bioinformatics. We’ve come a long way since then.
Some time later, I started at NIH and had the opportunity to be involved in numerous and varied research programs. I led the Office of Scientific Information Management at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. I served as Senior Advisor, Data Science Technology and Sustainability, with NIH’s Associate Director for Data Science. And, with a little help from my friends, I found my way to NCI’s CBIIT, where I have worked as the program director for the Cancer Research Data Commons (CRDC) since 2017. Looking back, it feels as if my early experience in sequencing has come full circle, as I’m applying my data science skills to my work with CRDC.
You currently oversee the Cancer Research Data Commons. What are some key initiatives/tasks/projects that you are involved with at CBIIT?
Other than the original Genomic Data Commons and Cloud Pilots, I’ve had the opportunity to help roll out all of CRDC’s primary components (for more detail, see the earlier blog, “Towards a Cancer Research Data Commons”). This includes repositories in genomics, proteomics, imaging, integrated canine data, and soon-to-come clinical trial data; the Cloud Resources (successor to the Cloud Pilots) for analysis; and a specialized infrastructure that offers a secure, cloud-based ecosystem for hosting the various components. CRDC also provides resources for harmonizing and aggregating diverse data types and will soon include a central locus for data submission and access.
There’s still much to do, not only to achieve efficient integration across CRDC and other data commons, but also to realize the goal of translating data to knowledge for more informed decision-making. However, I think the CRDC today offers an excellent foundation on which to build, ensuring future growth and development.
I’m thankful for my many colleagues, who have done the real work involved in launching and maintaining a functional CRDC. I am grateful too for the magnificent teamwork displayed by everyone involved in the CRDC—federal employees, contractors, and subcontractors. I feel fortunate to have been a part of this team and hope I was able to contribute toward that sense of camaraderie and collaborative accomplishment.
What advice would you give to someone just entering the field?
Given the circuitous route I took to data science and bioinformatics, my advice might be more applicable to someone interested in transitioning to data science from a more “usual” biomedical science background.
Foremost is to look at life as a learning journey. There’s always more to learn, and you don’t have to be an expert to excel. Yes, it obviously helps to know the technical underpinnings, such as statistics and programming, but you also need to recognize that there will always be things you don’t know.
Some would suggest that you need to have world-class skills at every level to be a successful data scientist. But no one can be a perfect academic statistician, tech company engineer, or business expert. Having curiosity and a strong desire to investigate and understand are just as important. When confronted with new or unknown variables, try to embrace these situations as exciting growth opportunities, rather than as disadvantages. Also, keep in mind how it felt to be a novice the next time you encounter someone who doesn’t know something as well as you do.
Ultimately, I think we make the most impact when combining deep domain knowledge with the right statistical and engineering tools. Merging these skills leads to evidence-based decisions and useful data products. The most important ability is critical thinking. It helps to hone the necessary soft skills, such as communication, storytelling, and structured thinking.
If your career path had taken you in a different direction, what might you be doing now?
I have something of a political bent and interests in history and philosophy. I once considered running for Congress while still a graduate student in Philadelphia. I held a small, elected position at the time, and it was exhilarating to see my name on a voting machine. I did community work and organizing, testified at City Hall, and helped in political campaigns. I applied for, but didn’t receive, a Congressional Fellowship. Hence, I set off across the country to continue my research at Berkeley. I’ve always found the intersection of science and policy intriguing. Having some minimal experience in each has, I think, served me well in research administration at NIH.
Outside of work, what are your favorite activities or hobbies?
I’m fortunate to live on a southern-facing island off the coast of North Carolina. I like to be outdoors, biking, kayaking, and walking. I like to cook and try new foods and recipes; it’s like playing with a chemistry set as a kid. Sharing something you’ve made with family and friends is truly an expression of love.
I like to spend time with my spouse of 40 years and our 3-year-old whippet, who keeps me young. The three of us go to a lot of local farmer’s markets, fairs, concerts, parades, and celebrations.
I look forward to having more time to research and practice yoga and meditation. As a registered yoga teacher, I enjoy going on an occasional yoga or meditation retreat, which always helps to remind me of what’s important.
Are there activities you’re most looking forward to after retirement?
I prefer to think of this next stage of life as leaving the federal government and transitioning to a new role rather than retiring.
I was privileged, during the pandemic, to take a virtual 9-month training program on foundations of contemplative care with the New York Zen Center. During that time, I started volunteering at a local hospice, called Lower Cape Fear Hospice. I’m continuing that work. Volunteers can work at the hospice facility or one-on-one with patients in their homes. I am also exploring teaching yoga therapy in a hospital or related setting. Yoga is a helpful adjunct modality, for example, for patients with Parkinson’s disease, in cardiac rehab, or undergoing cancer treatment.
To me, this work is a natural progression of my time in biomedical science. What I’m doing now allows me to take advantage of everything I’ve learned to date and apply that knowledge in a more hands-on fashion.
I think it’s important to realize, too, that the place where I live is not only a little slice of paradise but also the fastest growing county in North Carolina, and the fourth fastest growing county in the country. Over one-third of the population is like me, meaning over age 65. (The United States average is 16%.) I look at what I’m able to offer as a way of continuing public health service as well as an opportunity to learn something new. Learning something new—that keeps life challenging and rewarding, and fun!