Gerard van Westen: ‘My first 100 days as a SAILS Professor in Leiden’
SAILS Professor Gerard van Westen tells us about his first 100 days 'in the office'.
Since June 2020 I have been appointed as professor of AI and Medicinal Chemistry in Leiden (shared between the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research and Leiden Institute of Chemistry). In the past I have collaborated with the LCDS and Jaap van den Herik in particular. He asked me to write a small piece on my first 100 days as full professor, so here it is. When more precisely asked to describe these first 100 days in a single word, the words amazing, exciting, and chaotic’ would all three compete for the first place. So, let us visit all three epithets.
The appointment is a great honour and allows me to pursue building my scientific castles in the sky. Honestly, I have been building them for many years, but not in the sky. And now, it is time for realizing my dreams while simultaneously keeping my feet on the fine grounds of this earth. I see the appointment also as a demonstration of great trust in my abilities and my vision by my co-workers and peers. In the coming years I plan to build further on my old and new ideas and to develop research lines that climb to the stars, to really see where the limitations of AI in Medicinal Chemistry are.
Yes, the professorship is a new challenge that comes with new tasks and responsibilities. They will lead to new insights into how we can use AI in the very early stages of drug discovery. The goal is to improve efficiency, decrease costs, and increase safety. My research focuses on the use of AI methods in the broadest sense of the word (of course, machine learning, but also state-of-the art dimensionality reduction, visualization, natural language processing, and decision making). We apply this toolbox to complex, heterogeneous, and mostly messy chemical and biological data to get new insights into the dynamic processes of ligands binding to their protein targets. Subsequently we wish to gain a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms that lead to either on-target (desired) or off-target (undesired) biological effects of candidate drugs.
Seen as a warning, viz. that my appointment coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic since it has had already a significant impact on our society and the university. As my field is quickly developing and above average suited for remote teaching, I have been very busy trying to create new materials and adapting Kaltura as a standard teaching tool. The integration with other teams within the universities has led to a very active research direction which has been a massive help to the full employment of Kaltura, so kudos are due. At the same time this change can really be seen to have brought the best performances by people owing to their flexibility. We all adapted rather fast by moving our meetings to the virtual environment. There is even more on the plus side, since COVID-19 also provides new opportunities to enable lectures by world leaders in local events such as our Centre for Computational Life Sciences meeting series.
Summarizing, the first 100 days have been a very exciting time and I am very much looking forward to the science and collaborations in the year to come!