Monday, 9 October 2017

A sad loss for science

In science you can't cover everything, you just have to pitch in to an area where you believe you can make a difference. Because of increasing specialisation, after a couple of years of contributing and reading the literature; and a couple of conferences presenting your results and listening to what your rivals are up to, you know all the Effectives in your field. You also identify the make-weights who, however diligent and worthy, are not going to set the world alight anytime soon. Just after the turn of the century, I got a seat in one of the first labs funded by Science Foundation Ireland SFI to give the frontiers of biological science a really good shove.  I recently wrote about those exciting times as a way of giving tribs to a very smart woman, then a graduate student, now CSO of a biotech company. That lab worked (and worked damned hard) because of the intra-group chemistry. Including the boss, there were about a dozen really clever people, half Irish half Other, rocking up to work each day. If you hit a wall or had half an idea, you could always find someone to help you to a solution.

I'm really sorry to report that one of that band of brothers and sisters! is no longer available to help us thrash out the big questions. Mario Fares [R] died, far too young, over the weekend and will be buried tomorrow evening. It is a  huge loss to science: he was only 45. If we had in biosciences the equivalent of Erdős numbers, then I'd be particularly proud to have a Fares number of 1. That paper, which was published after our days together in the crucible of SFI, came about because Mario was extremely generous with his time in mentoring our graduate student in the the correct way to approach the analysis of positive selection in populations. The standard tool for carrying out such analyses was/is called PAML, invented, maintained and distributed by Ziheng Yang from UCL. I quietly boast that I am one of a select [N=384!] group who has found a bug in PHYLIP, another key software suite in the field of molecular evolution. Mario, de lo contrario, during his PhD in Spain took his data through PAML, stress-testing it against every option and parameter in the program. At the end of that journey, he understood PAML better that anyone on the planet except, maybe, Ziheng Yang. You couldn't ask for a more authoritative source for the down-and-dirty on this sort of analysis.

I met Mario the day he stepped off the boat plane in Ireland. He'd signed up to Ken Wolfe's SFI lab but flew in on the Saturday before he was due to start work. It was a drizzly, stormy, soggy, Irish day. One of his new colleagues picked him up from the airport and said there was a garden party down the country and asked Mario if he'd like to drive for 2 hours into the wilderness for his dinner. Back in those days we had a Summer Solstice cook-out up on our mountain and invited everyone down from the city. When Karsten and Mario rocked up at 3 pm, they were the only people to arrive. Everyone else had decided to stay warm and dry at home. We fed and watered the boys, played petanque à la irlandaise in the drizzle and then they drove back to Dublin - a bit of a wash-out.

I wrote a few years ago about a brief 25 minutes when I gave back to Mario by acting as a sounding board for his latest Big Idea. A couple of years after we met, in the drizzle, Mario applied for a job at one of the other Irish Universities. Everyone encouraged him to do so because he was a great explainer and a really rigorous scientific researcher . . . and a walking genius! He applied believing it was a forlorn hope because, back home in Spain you only get places by being the protégé of a much bigger cheese. If you play your cards right and keep your nose clean, your mentor will secure you a suitable place. Mavericks need not apply. We have nepotism in Ireland, sure, but also an official level of transparency that often allows the best candidate to win through, regardless of who is his uncle. In that case, Mario was that best candidate and he went off to Maynooth for a couple of years. Before he left, I gave him some avuncular advice: in setting up his lab he shouldn't necessarily go for the cleverest candidates; successful scientists can be a bit driven and may be a a little too ambitious and such people can be a) a little wearing b) not the best pick for the greater good. If Mario were to pick one person who was good enough at the science, but had also coached a teenage football team or showed some other element of social competence then that might provide the social lubrication for really superlative science. That's the sort of group we had in the Wolfe SFI lab, which had eased Mario into the scientific establishment of a foreign country.

In any case, Mario was back in a couple of years with the offer of a permanent post in the Genetics Department in TCD; which Trinity people would regard as a step up. A short while after that he secured another job back home in CSIC-UPV in Valencia. Since then he appears to have juggled his commitments between both countries and getting paid by both institutions. The fact that the administrative burden of such a peculiar arrangement was taken on board suggests that he was really indispensable to both places. And now he's gone; several big holes, one in my heart, need to be filled.

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