Challenge Accepted: Tackling COVID-19 Together with New Data-Driven Approaches

Slawomir Kubik

Even as a kid growing up in Poland, I wanted to be a scientist. At one point I wanted to become an astronaut and explore the stars, but I knew the chances were slim. Sadly for that kid, astronauts can’t wear glasses, but I’m glad I do and that it led me to the focus of biology. Once I got a taste for molecular biology, I never looked back. Now, I get to explore a very different kind of frontier than space and see the direct impact my work can have on people right here on earth. I’m glad now more than ever that I can be a positive force as we aim our sights on aiding important COVID-19 research around the world.

My parents used to buy a lot of these popular science books for me as a kid. So, I was interested in everything: astronomy, biology, physics — but biology became my favorite part. I loved learning what the intricacies of science could tell us about ourselves down to the molecular level. This helped later in life. When it came time to further my studies, I attended the University of Gdansk where I’d eventually receive both my master’s and doctoral degrees.

I’d spent much of my time post-doc working in Geneva where I really committed myself to understanding the advancements in genomics. I became fascinated with understanding what is happening in a live cell through numbers, using genomic research tools to answer fundamental questions about life and disease progression. This was around the time myself and my peers first became well-aware of SOPHiA GENETICS as a major game changer in the field. When I learned about SOPHiA and what the company can do with Data-Driven Medicine, I knew this was exactly where I wanted to work.

I was so glad when I got the job. My wife and two kids had already begun to fall in love with living in Switzerland. I was assigned projects immediately, but I had a lot of freedom in how I wanted to tackle and approach different aspects of those tasks. While there are always challenges in our field, I see overcoming obstacles as very rewarding. It doesn’t even depend what field or industry we’re discussing. When you’re able to work through a problem unlike any you’ve faced, you come out better on the other end. Especially when you like what you’re doing. This is what has helped us all push through the complicated work to turn our technology toward the analysis of COVID-19.

Our SARS-CoV-2 project was so huge and so urgently needed. Before isolation, I was working mostly on my own or in small groups. In an instant, we were suddenly interacting with a group of I’d say 50 people daily across departments. It may sound funny but many of the people with whom I interacted with every day, I don’t even know what they look like. I hope to make up for that at the next company cookout we can all safely attend in good health.

From conception to development and testing, it was very inspiring to see those many moving parts working for the same outcome, but it was not a simple task. The very first experiment I ran for this project didn’t run the way I’d hoped as I adapted to a new working environment. We were very committed to keep up the momentum. Everyone was very engaged and we worked together to accomplish our goal. Being in isolation, I think we were able to really focus on the essential task at hand and overcome any challenges. The resulting research solution is very good in terms of performance, meaning that it’s very sensitive. It can detect single copies of the virus in the sample. Not to mention, it has intuitive features and can be easily integrated into existing systems in place.

During our SARS-CoV-2 webinar in May
, I was proud to be able to present our initial accomplishments. Even presenting virtually in this new socially distant way was so different than what I’m used to, with hundreds of invisible spectators listening to us online through screens. This really wouldn’t have been possible without contribution from each and every person involved. This is what’s great about SOPHiA GENETICS. We know that the work we do may be part of a much larger machine, but we can directly see how the individual’s work is a benefit to the entire operation. The amount of experience then gained from these big projects gives the individual the tools they need to grow and come up with new exciting projects to maximize our impact on patients all over the world.

I’m still that kid looking up at night through my telescope, but I’m also so much more. It’s cool for me that I’m doing something that is actually useful right now. In academia, there may only be a handful of people interested in your specific field. At SOPHiA, what I do is interesting and I never get bored, so it’s only a bonus that these products have immediate impact on research around the world.