New Leader of Computational Biomedicine

Robert Gentleman named founding executive director of the Center for Computational Biomedicine

Robert Gentleman

Harvard Medical School has named Robert Gentleman as founding executive director of the newly established Center for Computational Biomedicine. He will assume his role on July 13.

Gentleman, an accomplished statistician and computational scientist with extensive experience in academia and industry, most recently served as vice president of computational biology at the genetic testing company 23andMe.

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The Center for Computational Biomedicine was created to harness and amplify computational and data sciences across HMS and to strengthen the connective tissue between data science efforts at the medical school, across the Harvard ecosystem, at Harvard-affiliated hospitals and in industry.

In his new role, Gentleman will conceptualize the scientific vision for computational biomedicine across HMS and lead the execution of this vision. He will also bring his decades-long experience in developing software tools, user interfaces, and underlying statistical and computational methods to this new role.

“Robert’s tenure in both academia and industry, combined with his restless intellect and passion for discovery and medicine, make him a superb choice to lead the center into the critical next stage of data science at Harvard Medical School and in doing so, help advance the School’s mission toward transforming human health,” said George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School.

Computation, data science and machine learning have long played critical roles in discovery across the 11 preclinical departments that make up the HMS Quadrangle. The use of computational approaches has already yielded critical insights in genetics, neurobiology, microbiology, biological chemistry, systems biology, cell biology and more.

The Center for Computational Biomedicine will coalesce these efforts and propel them further.

“Over the last decade, data science and computation have reshaped both biomedical discovery and the practice of clinical medicine and will be increasingly important for generating insights relevant to human health,” said Isaac Kohane, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at HMS. “With Robert at its helm, the Center for Computational Biomedicine is greatly positioned to lead this evolution.”

“Robert combines a deep knowledge of machine learning and computational science with an unsurpassed breadth of leadership experience to lead the Center for Computational Biomedicine,” said Stephen Blacklow, chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at HMS. “He has the vision to propel scientific discovery at scales from molecules to populations in the service of the Harvard Medical School mission to improve human health.”

Gentleman joined 23andMe to help launch the company’s therapeutics division. There, he built a team of leading computational biologists working to develop novel methods for identifying links between genetic loci and possible drug targets.

Prior to 23andMe, Gentleman was senior director for bioinformatics and computational biology at the biotech giant Genentech, where he infused computation and data analysis into drug development and studies of immune cell function.

Prior to Genentech, Gentleman was head of computational biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and has held academic positions at Harvard University, the University of Auckland and the University of Waterloo. While at Harvard, Gentleman was associate professor of biostatics at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Gentleman is the co-creator of the programing language R, which is widely used by statisticians and data miners for developing statistical software and data analysis for a range of applications in a variety of disciplines. Gentleman is a founder of the Bioconductor Project, an open-source collaborative software tool designed to promote statistical analysis and comprehension of current and emerging genomic data.

Gentleman, who was born and raised in Canada, completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of British Columbia and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in statistics from the University of Washington. His research interests include statistics, machine learning, reproducible research, computational science, genome biology and genetics.

“I am very excited by this opportunity and the chance to return to Harvard and work with the great scientists here at HMS,” Gentleman said. “Rapidly growing and increasingly complex data sets and advancing computation methods represent a challenge but also an opportunity to develop tools and interfaces that will help researchers and students reach sound, reproducible conclusions. Although not simple, these problems are solvable and their promise is great.”