Monday, 1 October 2018

On a hot January day at The University of Sydney, a young computer science lecturer was sitting next to a biologist during student enrolments.

The computer scientist, (now Associate Professor) Michael Wise, had recently written plagiarism detection software to stop his parallel computation students from copying each other’s assignments. It worked even when the students shuffled functions in their programs.

Speaking to the biologist, he realised that he could use the same software to detect similarities when the genetic codes in chromosomes are shuffled. Out of that was born his first paper in bioinformatics.

Michael’s interest in bioinformatics followed him to Cambridge and then UWA where, in 2010, he launched a new journal in computational biology and became interested in publication ethics.

“When I launched the journal, I was automatically signed up to COPE – the Committee on Publication Ethics . Before long, I’d been voted onto the COPE Council,” he says.

“I think the area of ethics appealed to the ‘do-gooder’ in me and my drive to ensure that sciences improve the world.

“We hear a lot about fake science and fake new these days. If a dodgy paper ends up in a substandard journal it could cause real problems if people start citing it – especially in the medical field.

“We’re currently trialling having universities and institutions as members of COPE because a lot of ethical issues – including authorship and falsified results – begin long before a paper is published. I’m hoping that with broader membership, COPE will be able to make an even greater impact.”

Michael’s sociological perspective on science dates back to his days as an undergraduate student when he chose to study an Arts degree alongside Engineering.

Why Arts? Officially, he wanted a lens through which to explore the social reality around him. Unofficially, he wanted to stop losing debates with his then-girlfriend, who was studying political science!

Luckily, his studies in sociology have come in useful for ensuring his students understand there is an ethical dimension to programming work.

He teaches a third-year computer science unit where students create software to address a real-life challenge. The students, he says, appreciate being given a challenge that doesn’t have a ‘correct’ answer.

Michael practices what he teaches and is currently using computational biology to trace human evolution.

Helicobacter pylori bacteria have followed modern humans out of Africa. I’m looking at the genomes of the bacteria, as they were passed within families, to trace human migration patterns tens of thousands of years ago.

“I’m inspired by science. It’s important to understand the world around us, to listen to it and most importantly, not mess it up.

“In the past, science was seen as a way of dominating the world, but it has more humility now. A lot of researchers are looking at food, water, climate change and antibiotic resistant bugs – we’re more aware of the human hubris and the need to create a better world for everyone.

“My mother and both grandmothers were Holocaust survivors. As a result, I’m really driven to make a positive impact, because we’re all humans together – one race,” he says.

And as for his former girlfriend who inspired him to study sociology? They’re still friends, and he even (occasionally!) wins an argument with her.


UWA Forward