Summer of Science: Dr. Hongmei Huang in Informatics (Headshot of Dr. Huang)

Using informatics to connect the dots for the greater good

Jun 22, 2022

by Dr. Hongmei Huang

For #SummerOfScience, AWIS is highlighting members and partners to show the impact different fields of science have on society – and how these fields are impacted by women.

Genentech is a longtime partner of AWIS. This content originally appeared in Genentech’s Portraits in Science collection.

Introduce yourself, your current role, and what led you here.

I am Hongmei Huang, the Vice President of Development Sciences Informatics at Genentech. Informatics is the science of capturing, processing, and utilizing data. It’s about being able to connect the dots. We need people who understand both the science and the technology to look at these challenges in a very pragmatic and applicable way.

I studied chemistry as an undergrad at Beijing University, then bio-analytical chemistry at the University of Michigan. As I studied proteins and peptides, I grew curious about the larger context of my work. I started thinking about what was behind the experiments, what we were trying to accomplish and how it fit into broader research. So, I pursued a PhD in bio-organic chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute.

After graduate school, I became a research investigator and oncology project leader. For the first time, I had a holistic view of all the data my colleagues and I worked with. And there was a lot of it. The data that we had was beyond what our Excel spreadsheets could handle. I knew that we needed to organize our data in a systematic way before things got out of control. I started taking classes in computer science so I could get the most out of the data that was coming from preclinical and clinical studies.

What do you love about this field?

In my role, I am able to pair my scientific knowledge with my data analytics knowledge to make a greater impact on the organization and society as a whole. Achieving such goals on the scale of a research enterprise like Genentech’s is a monumental task requiring years of work and a significant amount of investment. I was awed by the volume, diversity, and quality of scientific data my colleagues produce. I believe that Genentech’s vision for improving healthcare will succeed. It’s really not only a technology solution, it’s also about the culture. It’s a movement. You have to have the whole organization making a commitment. And I feel that commitment here.

How does this work benefit people and society in general?

When scientific or clinical data is FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable), it can be used many times over to generate insights by researchers throughout an organization – not just once for the purposes that led to its collection. Data from past clinical trials can shed new light on the discovery and development of the next generation of medicines, as well as better inform the design of future trials; machine learning and other computational methods can be applied to petabytes of data to find patterns no human could ever hope to detect.

In fact, Genentech envisions creating a Human-Machine Partnership that combines the analytical brains of scientists with the digital brawn of computers to find new and more personalized ways to treat cancer and other diseases.