SHANGHAI, CHINA—Surprising many in the worldwide genomics community, the head of Shenzhen-based sequencing powerhouse BGI stepped down earlier this month. Jun Wang will now concentrate on research into artificial intelligence (AI), the institute announced on 17 July.
Wang, 39, has been with BGI from its 1999 inception as the Beijing Genomics Institute. While still a Ph.D. candidate at Peking University, Wang led the bioinformatics team as BGI completed China's contribution to the Human Genome Project and then sequenced the rice genome on its own. Wang took on additional responsibilities as BGI launched more ambitious projects, including sequencing the giant panda as well as multiple silk worms to identify genes selected for during domestication. He became executive director in 2008 as BGI pushed into providing sequencing services to other research groups, diagnostics, and applications in agriculture. Along the way, BGI moved from Beijing to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and grew into a global operation, with 5000 employees working at offices scattered around the world.
Wang gained fame throughout the community for his quick decision-making and a willingness to take on ambitious projects, such as an ongoing effort to sequence the genomes of all 10,500 or so bird species.
With BGI firmly established, "I don't see myself continuing doing the same thing," Wang says. He will lead a new BGI initiative focusing on applying AI to the challenges of analyzing and managing increasingly huge data sets in an effort to help understand diseases and make the lives of ordinary people healthier. Wang discussed his decision and his plans with ScienceInsider. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What led to this decision?
A: There were several reasons. The biggest is that I trained in AI even as an undergraduate. To me both life science and genomics have now run into a bottleneck in handling data from tens of thousands of samples, yet that is still not enough to understand the genetics of disease. These huge data sets need new tools for analysis. AI and machine learning could do something with big data and for peoples' health.
Q: How will work on AI fit into BGI's overall strategy?
A: AI is only one way to analyze data. BGI will be involved but I'll be looking for strategic partners, large information technology companies, and small data companies. The strategy will evolve. The goal is a system to serve ordinary people by making data accessible throughout [a health care] system. This will need both science and service. It may eventually have some business model. Like the old BGI, there will be research but also a commercial product.
Q: What aspect of AI will you focus on?
A: AI is a sexy word people use. The first goal is to digitalize the "omics" data for 1 million individuals—DNA, RNA, proteins, the metabolomics—and follow up with clinical and even behavioral data. This needs new networks and the use of machine learning, things I started to play with 20 years ago.
Q: When you started at BGI, did you ever envision it becoming what it is today?
A: I can't say we designed BGI to become what it is. But we followed strategic thinking at certain time points and it evolved. I'm a risk-taker. I'm always aiming for something bigger, more challenging, for something to change the world. With BGI where it is, it's a good time for me to move on.