Treatment suggestions based on biomedical data

Stifterverband Science Award goes to computer scientist Maria-Esther Vidal

This year’s Stifterverband Science Award “Society Needs Science” goes to Maria-Esther Vidal, Head of the “Scientific Data Management” research group at TIB – Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology in Hannover. The award honours the computer scientist’s work on scientific data management. The award, worth €50,000 in total, was conferred at the Leibniz Association’s Annual Meeting, which was held virtually this year.

Managing large volumes of research data is one of the key challenges facing science. Data from different sources need to be prepared, consolidated and harnessed so that their combination can generate new insights. Maria-Esther Vidal focuses on this issue by conducting research on the optimisation of database queries, the visualisation of data by means of knowledge graphs on the Semantic Web, an enrichment of web data with structured data, and big data analysis.

Her work focuses in particular on semantic data management in biomedicine and life sciences. The consolidation of extensive and heterogeneous datasets promises to pave the way for numerous new approaches for the treatment of diseases. For example, Maria-Esther Vidal is working on the transformation of clinical and genomic data (OMICS) into semantic knowledge graphs, which describe individual signatures of patients, facilitating personalised treatment methods based on integrated profiles of the patients. One concrete application example in medicine is research into drug interactions and various other factors affecting life expectancy with lung cancer.

The combination of information from very different sources, ranging from scientific publications, statistical analyses and genetic information to chemical structural formulae, allows systematic analyses and predictions to be made where, in the past, they were usually only possible on an ad hoc and unsystematic basis. For this purpose, Maria-Esther Vidal and the members of the Semantic Data Management group (SDM) have developed a platform that combines more than 40 different data sources and uses knowledge graphs and machine learning to enable scientists to discover, understand and predict patterns.

In collaboration with a Greek research group, the group led by Maria-Esther Vidal is currently using this method to develop a knowledge graph on drug interactions based on scientific literature and databases, which may be worth considering in the treatment of COVID-19. (See, for example, https://blogs.tib.eu/wp/tib/2020/05/06/how-do-knowledge-graphs-contribute-to-understanding-covid-19-related-treatments/ and https://devpost.com/software/covid-19-kg).

And yet the computer science techniques used by Maria-Esther Vidal to structure knowledge and integrate data are not limited to applications in medicine; they can in principle be used in a wide range of multidisciplinary contexts beyond science, such as in industry. All software tools developed by Maria-Esther Vidal’s research group are freely available worldwide for research and application in the form of open source software.

An excellent scientist with outstanding and highly relevant research

“By conferring this award on Maria-Esther Vidal, we honour an excellent scientist whose outstanding and highly relevant research work has made an impact on society and assumes responsibility in a very special way,” emphasised Volker Meyer-Guckel, Deputy Secretary General of Stifterverband. “Maria-Esther Vidal’s multidisciplinary research topics provide the basis for innovation in a data-driven world. In her work, she actively applies the principle of openness. With her great commitment to Open Science, Maria-Esther Vidal is making an outstanding contribution to raising and harnessing value creation potential in the innovation system.”

Matthias Kleiner, President of the Leibniz Association, added: “Besides honouring Maria-Esther Vidal’s individual excellence, the award is indicative of the progressive change in science, showing that we can successfully meet social challenges, such as in medicine, above all by taking multidisciplinary approaches and enabling the intelligent analysis of large amounts of data. I am particularly delighted that we are honouring a scientist who works at an infrastructure facility, proving that scientific libraries in the Leibniz Association have long since developed into outstanding information infrastructures with a global perspective, which are also places of excellent research.”

The Stifterverband Science Award “Society Needs Science”, worth €50,000, is presented on the recommendation of the Leibniz Association for outstanding research outcomes that are of particular relevance to society and highly practicable. The aim of the award is to showcase scientific achievements and make them visible to the general public. Research that generates results forming the basis for innovative applications in business, politics or society are worthy of the award. The award is conferred every two years at the Leibniz Association’s Annual Meeting.

To the recording of the award ceremony (from minute 26:10)

Interview with Maria-Esther Vidal on her research

About Professor Dr. (Univ. Simón Bolívar) Maria-Esther Vidal

Maria-Esther Vidal is from Venezuela and has been leading the “Scientific Data Management” research group at TIB – Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology in Hannover since 2017. She is also a member of L3S Research Centre at Leibniz Universität Hannover and a full professor (currently on leave of absence) at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas (Venezuela).

Maria-Esther Vidal held visiting professorships at several universities such as in Maryland (USA), Madrid, Barcelona, Karlsruhe and Nantes. She has published more than 170 peer-reviewed articles on the Semantic Web, databases, bioinformatics and artificial intelligence, which have been cited more than 3,000 times.

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