FTC: How did you become a cancer researcher?
Dr. Monti: I am a naturalized US citizen who came to this country more than twenty years ago as a visiting student from Treviso, a small city in northern Italy known as the land of Prosecco, tiramisu, and the United Colors of Benetton. When I first crossed the ocean I was not a scientist, and I was not even aware I would become one. At that time, I was mainly motivated by a desire to travel and become a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, learn foreign languages, and experience different cultures and lifestyles.
But a year after arriving, I joined the Ph.D. program in Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh, not appreciating how deeply that choice would shape me. The importance of my choice is connected less to the great interest I developed in the subject matter, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), than to the discipline in rigorous thinking I learned from it. Twenty years later, being a scientist has come to define much of who I am and how I approach life and perceive the world around me. Ask my friends and relatives, who have to put up with my “lecturing” every time they try to draw a general conclusion from an anecdote. This is the equivalent, I insist, of trying to validate a hypothesis from a single data point. You get the idea. Once I graduated as a “computational scientist” (a data scientist in today’s parlance), the career opportunities were quite diverse. But the one that raised quickly to the top was an offer to join a cancer research team at the Whitehead Institute’s Center for Genome Science, which I promptly accepted. I did not appreciate at the time how much that choice would affect my professional future.
FTC: Why prevention and where did your interest originate?
Dr. Monti: Although trained as a computational scientist, I have always maintained a keen interest for world affairs, political economy, and human rights, and I like to think that my training helped me approach and delve into these topics with a level of analytical rigor I wouldn’t have been able to master otherwise. These interests in turn colored my worldview, and fueled my desire to work toward making our society fairer and healthier.
My interest in prevention originates in part from this desire and from my motivation to address what I perceive is an imbalance in our dominant health care paradigm, with its focus on curing the diseased individual, while devoting little attention and resources to preventing the individual from falling ill in the first place.
The “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” analogy perfectly captures this imbalance: We have an amazingly sophisticated ambulance at the bottom of that cliff, but we barely manage to place a warning sign at the top, let alone a protective fence. The world of 21st-century “ multi-omics” medicine and biology epitomizes this imbalance, with huge resources invested into finding the cure and much fewer devoted to prevention. I myself am deeply invested in that effort, with an important part of my research portfolio directed at hunting for novel cancer vulnerabilities that may be amenable to therapeutic targeting. However, I also wish to build the warning sign and the protective fence on top of the cliff. Doing so would yield enormous payoffs in terms of reduced human suffering and savings.
FTC: What are you most known for in your field?
Dr. Monti: My research focuses primarily on the study of the biological mechanisms of cancer formation and treatment based on the analysis of genomic and genetic data. In particular, I have worked extensively with data generated from high-throughput biological assays – including expression micro-arrays, and high-throughput sequencing, the “workhorses” of modern genomics – and I have developed new methodologies of integrative data analysis aimed at providing a holistic view of multiple data sources. It is difficult for me to dispassionately answer your question, but If I look at my most cited research, at the very top I find a manuscript on “ Consensus Clustering” (don’t ask), and a manuscript characterizing new subtypes of Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (a type of tumor arising in lymph nodes), basically studies aimed at developing novel analytical tools and at applying those tools to support scientific discovery, respectively. But the work I am most proud of is what we named The Carcinogenome Project. In that project, we combined computational and experimental approaches toward the development of a fast and accurate assay for the identification of new environmental carcinogens (i.e., cancer-causing chemicals). This is clearly prevention research, and for the reasons I alluded to before (the appeal of that shiny ambulance at the bottom of the cliff), we had a much harder time securing federal funding for it. And that is where Find the Cause became indispensable, as it helped fill that funding gap.
FTC: What is the most impactful experience you’ve had in your career?
Dr. Monti: The coolest and ongoing experience in my career is the opportunity to work with so many gifted and talented scientists from different disciplines from whom I never cease to learn, as well as the privilege of mentoring and nurturing the young trainees who will hopefully become the “next generation” of scientists. This is the never-ending and ever-giving experience I am most grateful for.
FTC: Tell us how your lab became part of the Find The Cause Scientific Consortium.
Dr. Monti: I was lucky enough to meet David Sherr, the scientific leader of the Consortium, shortly after joining Boston University, and we immediately connected, both on a personal and professional level. We’ve been working together ever since, as a long list of co-authored publications can attest.
FTC: What do you see on the horizon regarding the course of your work in computational biology and how that will support the consortium’s research?
Dr. Monti: My research and my lab have grown and matured and become well established, producing (what I believe are) high-quality studies and contributing to advancing the fields of computational biology, bioinformatics, and cancer genomics. My biggest concern is the continuous challenge in securing adequately large funding for the type of prevention research I aspire to pursue. At present, I am wearing many hats, and I cannot devote as much attention to the cancer prevention aspect of my research portfolio as I would like. I will continue to strive to make it the primary focus of my pursuit.
While we know well Dr. Monti’s passion for his work, we asked him to share a few photos of his life outside of the lab…