Q&A with Dr. Jerome Baudry: COVID-19 research, supercomputing, and minimalist art
This Q&A series spotlights people who have done something extraordinary in their career and have pushed the envelope in their field. It provides a glimpse into their motivations and inspirations.
Jerome Baudry was aware of COVID-19 by January. Before it spread through the U.S., his current home. Before it surfaced in France, where he grew up. Before his sister caught it and recovered. From the beginning, it was obvious to him that the disease was going to be a major crisis.
Baudry is the Pei-Ling Chan Chair in Biology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His team’s current mission is to discover a drug or treatment to combat COVID-19 using products from nature. Working at warp speed, the researchers are aided by Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Cray supercomputer Sentinel, which enables them to run about 1.2 million calculations a day. Because knowledge is created so fast, it can be hard to keep up with, he says.
“It’s important that we are telling the future scientists, but also artists, social workers, everyone, that supercomputers are going to change the way we work for the better and not to be afraid of it, and to embrace it and to use it as an agent for good,” he says.
Baudry’s group was set up to develop and apply methods and protocols for computational drug discovery, so it was a natural pivot for his lab to join the urgent quest to thwart the pandemic.
“It’s very satisfying for me to contribute to bridging the ancestral knowledge of humanity on plants and nature and what it does―how it can kill you and how it can save you―and marrying that with the most cutting-edge scientific and technical progresses of our species,” he says.
Baudry shares his team’s progress to fight COVID, and wisdom he’s learned along the way.
What’s the status of your COVID-19 research?
The research is moving forward quickly, at a rate of knots. The computational work done in collaboration with HPE has sparked a lot of interest in the COVID-19 community. The findings help prioritize experimental testing of the most promising natural products with anti-COVID-19 properties.
We’re working with a BSL-3 laboratory at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, ordering some of the natural products predicted to do well against the virus. Soon, we’ll see details about how these natural products behave against the virus to validate, or to improve, our computational work.
What challenges have you encountered in your COVID-19 research that you didn’t expect?
Challenges and opportunities are often two sides of the same coin. In the case of COVID-19, the urgency of the situation is both a blessing (more on that later) and a curse.
We must make many decisions quickly, sometimes with less data than we would ideally like to have, but at the same time, with the same necessary obligation of excellence and care.
We must mobilize our expertise and our attention; we have to be very focused and look at computational results in real time. Sometimes we must change strategy in the middle of a calculation if the first results suggest that a computational task is not producing the needed data. In this case, the challenges are about changing our way to work toward very proactive interactions with the computations.
Previously, I conducted scientific research in the military and in industry, where time was also of the essence. But this is not what we are generally used to in our field. We are often more comfortable with lengthy considerations than with immediate action.
How is this research on COVID-19 different from other research you’ve conducted?
That’s where the urgency of the situation is a blessing. Everyone in the community is working together. It is quite unusual. Groups are still “competing,” but it is not a competition against each other; it is a competition against the virus. We have no adversaries, only allies.
Scientists and clinicians of many different specialties are talking to each other―and listening to each other―in an unprecedented way. The fact that we were able to build this supercomputing campaign with HPE, produce the results, and test them in a BSL-3 lab in only two or three months is unheard of.
The COVID-19 crisis is a terrible threat, and I wish it never happened, but it has united us around a common goal that is broad and deep. It usually takes three or four years to get to that stage in a classical drug discovery project. Here, we are about an order of magnitude faster.
What have you learned that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
There are two notions that these last few months reinforced in me. The first thing is that success is the sum of the things that work and of the things that don’t work. What doesn’t work almost always contains useful information and experience that we can use if we look carefully. In this nonstop COVID-19 urgency, we have had to learn quickly how to turn a difficult situation around and to move on rather than to start over, because we just don’t have the time to start over.
The other thing is the necessity to have a holistic, long-term approach and vision of a problem, however urgent it is. We are doing cutting-edge research with cutting-edge supercomputers, and it is all too easy to get lost in the details. And indeed, it is necessary to be involved in the details. But we have to keep our eyes on the big picture―otherwise, we run the risk of going in the wrong direction.
What's your No. 1 tip for pushing through plateaus?
It is to clear one’s mind and think anew. I have several projects I am working on, even in this COVID-19 era. When one project stalls, I find it useful to focus on something else. It gives me a refreshed perspective when going back to the problem. Sometimes, we get stuck in our own thinking.
Who or what inspires you, and why?
The people I have the privilege to work with inspire me―each and every one of them. From Nobel Prize laureates I’ve worked and interacted with to the new undergraduate students joining the laboratory. From the colleagues I get along very well with to the more, I would say, challenging co-workers that, sometimes, we have to deal with. They are the real treasures.
When I was younger, I used to be more impressed by the supercomputers than by the people who make them run. But as awesome as a supercomputer is, it is never better than the people working on it and with it. The HPE supercomputer we use for our COVID-19 is a dream, but it would be useless without the scientific and technical expertise and support of an entire team. For all of the supercomputer’s technical prowess, people are what matters.
What is your personal motto?
It’s in Latin (I was a classics major in high school) and it is, per angusta ad augusta, [which means], technically, through problems to honors, or succeeding by overcoming difficulties.
It is a call to fortitude on rainy days. But it also means, and that’s very important to me, that the road to success does not necessarily take a glorious, theoretical, beautiful, elegant, and universal route. Often, a more practical, weird, empirical, and risky approach is needed to solve new problems.
“Do what you can, and don’t be afraid” would be a good interpretation of that motto. This is something that I learned in the pharmaceutical industry. When I was quite young, fresh from my PhD and postdoc in prestigious universities, I was afraid to make mistakes at work and to fail. My boss and mentor in the startup where we were working helped me realize that the only real mistake was to not try. I have never forgotten.
How do you take a break and recharge?
My family. It’s what matters. It can be watching TV, playing, listening to music, cooking, arguing about politics (there’s a large diversity of opinions at home!), or doing nothing at all. Just being around my wife and our children is what fuels me.
What question are you surprised people never or rarely ask you?
I think this very question, actually. I am surprised that no one ever asked me that.
What are you reading, watching, and listening to that you'd recommend?
I read and watch things over and over again. It is because I find it meditative and also because it always comes with some variations―a bit like repetitive music, à la Philip Glass. It seems that it’s always the same thing, but in fact, there is always a novelty to experience because of different mindsets. That said, I like minimalistic 20th century contemporary music, Glass or Boulez, which, like Indian classical music, often involves developments around a recurrent theme.
I like slow-paced literature like Russian literature (it sometimes feels like you are reading a telephone directory, but I like it!) or meditative visual cinematography like, say, Kubrick’s 2001 or its Russian alter-ego, Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I do like sci-fi. But I also like to read over and over a lot of comedies. My all-time favorites are French authors Marcel Pagnol and Albert Cohen, two giants of comedy literature, the Aristophanes of the 20th century.
I like Flemish painting, with the dark skies and seashores of Belgium and the Netherlands. I absolutely love the amazing Northern Alabama sunsets, actually the most impressive I have seen. In dance, I like the sometimes minimalistic contemporary choreography of, say, Béjart or Petit. My interest in arts is along an appreciation for minimalistic and meditative work, maybe in reaction to the fast-paced, action-based nature of the scientific research we are doing.
"Solving new problems often requires taking a practical, weird, empirical, and risky approach."
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