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Icahn Laboratory houses University genomics research.

By Ariel Chen

A new partnership between Microsoft and the University will accelerate the pace of biological research on campus. The partnership’s first task is to assist University researchers in studying biofilms, thin bacterial coatings that are key to microbial infection and are responsible for millions of deaths.

A team at Microsoft Research called the Biological Computation group will collaborate with Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, and Ned Wingreen, the Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences and professor of molecular biology.

Microsoft plans to contribute advanced computing technology that will help researchers model bacteria and biological systems. It also hopes to introduce a cloud-based system, which will be used to efficiently share and analyze data with Microsoft’s machine learning techniques.

While the University has previously worked with Microsoft on computer science, cybersecurity, and and a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; this will be the first joint dive into microbiology.

Bassler emphasized that she expects the partnership to speed up her lab’s research. She thinks Microsoft’s technology will allow researchers like herself to analyze a greater volume of experimental data.

“The idea is to figure out if we can do experiments with Microsoft’s computing power and algorithms [and] accelerate our biological research,” Bassler said. “Can we actually learn more from data, so that we do fewer experiments but they actually work better?”

While optimistic about Microsoft’s role in the biofilms project, Bassler noted that her lab is only “the beta test” or “guinea pig,” since the long-term aim is to “democratize science.” 

She and Wingreen hope that this partnership will help refine algorithms and principles that other researchers will employ in their own projects. The two also aim to inspire broader changes in how companies, research institutions, and individuals use data.

Suren Jamiyanaa ’19, who interned at Microsoft this summer as a program manager for its Azure cloud computing service, was enthusiastic about the partnership. 

“It really aligns with the mission statement of the company,” Jamiyanaa said, “which is ‘to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.’”

Though she noted she was at first “apprehensive” about the partnership, Bassler now lauds it as a “seamless match.”

Biological research at the University already draws from a wide range of disciplines, and the partnership allows the exploration of more topics, many of which exceed professors’ expertise, such as machine learning.

This is the first time Bassler and Wingreen are partnering with a company, and there was some initial uncertainty about how postdoctoral students would interact with people from a company who may have different research standards, levels of expertise, and even goals. 

“Biology is this very collective enterprise,” Wingreen said. “You need lots of people, equipment, and skills — much more, for example, than quantum computing where a single person can sit in a room and think very hard and make some progress.”

Bassler was impressed by the Microsoft team’s adaptability and scientific expertise. She sees the potential for real progress despite relatively little communication — often overseas through Skype — the researchers have had so far. 

“For the postdocs here, this is an exciting development,” Wingreen added. “They like the idea that Microsoft is interested in what they do and [is] learning from them.”

“The dream, of course, is to make a breakthrough that neither of us could have done on our own,” Bassler said.  

The announcement of this partnership comes on the heels of the launch of the Next Generation Network project, a major infrastructural upgrade that will support research and prepare the University to develop and expand campus through 2026.

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