Lisa Strug, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Genome Data Sciences, is Associate Director of The Centre for Applied Genomics (TCAG) at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), Associate Professor of Statistical Sciences at the University of Toronto, and Director of the CANSSI Ontario Regional Centre.
TCAG, with its other genome centre partners at McGill University and the University of British Columbia, are the three leading genomics centres linked through CGEn, Canada’s national platform for genome sequencing and analysis. CGEn was recently awarded a $20 million dollar grant to support the development of a National COVID-19 Genome Sequencing Databank to support research efforts across the country including in therapeutic and vaccine development; Lisa is the Scientific Lead of this project.
CANSSI Director Don Estep (Simon Fraser University) sat down with Lisa to discuss COVID-19, her research, statistics in Canada, and CANSSI.
Don: Lisa, thanks for taking the time to sit down to talk. While all college faculty are leading hectic lives right now, many statisticians are feeling a heightened level of pressure to help society deal with the crisis. Can you give a sense of how COVID-19 is affecting you?
Lisa: There is certainly a new juggling act. What was a full work and home life prior to COVID-19, has ballooned. Like many, I am working to ensure online learning is effective for my children. But besides the academics, children’s social interactions and extra-curricular activities have also changed, and I worry about the consequences of this on their mental health. I am very motivated to learn more about the effects of COVID-19 in children to guide their return to some normalcy. I feel fortunate that, through my position at SickKids, I can launch studies that can address some of the unknowns.
Don: Let’s jump into the research. Can you tell us about the project that will be supported by the new award and the impact it promises?
Lisa: With funding from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, administered through Genome Canada, we are developing a COVID-19 Host Genome Sequencing Databank to support research. Building collaborations with scientists across the country who are carrying out patient-centred research and collecting biospecimens, we will generate whole genome sequence from 10,000 individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, obtain data on their disease experience, and deposit the genome sequence and clinical information in a Databank. These data will be available to all scientists to support their own research. With these data, we will investigate the genetic variation that impacts susceptibility to, and disease severity of, COVID-19, as well as to provide genetic evidence to support therapeutic and vaccine development. We hope the databank will be a national resource that will support research for years to come.
Don: This is an example of the fact that statistics play a key role in multiple dimensions in a situation like COVID-19, ranging from helping to predict the course of the outbreak to finding medical solutions.
Lisa: Yes, for sure. Statistical training in study design and research methods are what enable the development and implementation of these studies.
Don: Statisticians immersed in relevant research are getting emergency research awards from the Tri-Council agencies. In addition, CANSSI is being asked about the possibility of providing expert help of statistics faculty on small specific projects at the Provincial level. In response, CANSSI has created a Rapid Response Program to support those efforts. The program is made accessible through a fast application and decision process that we can manage because we have the expertise in-house to adjudicate proposed projects.
Lisa: Yes, many graduate students and statisticians in my laboratory have expressed interest in working with COVID-19 data—we have a highly useful and relevant skill set and there are so many unanswered questions! One of the interesting aspects of this developing story in Canada is just how limited the surveillance data is. As statisticians, we can’t help but contribute our innovative ideas around understanding the impact of the disease in light of the uncertainty.
Don: Speaking of CANSSI, you have been heavily engaged in establishing the new CANSSI Ontario Regional Centre as Regional Director.
Lisa: Yes, I am really excited about our work establishing the CANSSI Ontario Regional Centre. We are enhancing research and training in data science by developing programs that promote interdisciplinary research and enable multidisciplinary collaborations across the province. These include funding awards that remove barriers to accessing data; post-doctoral top-up awards for fellows engaged in multi-disciplinary projects; and new investigator awards for data scientists. In our first year of operations, we are already seeing great engagement by faculty across the province. The University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Science is providing significant support for us to deliver these programs, in an effort to strengthen this CANSSI mission in Ontario, and we are very appreciative of their commitment to enhancing data science research and training in the province.
Don: The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has to be commended for establishing the only national statistics institute in the world that is dedicated to supporting fundamental statistics research, overcoming the barriers of interdisciplinary research, and training of students to meet the challenges of an evolving future.
Lisa: Statistics is unique because we pursue fundamental research but we always judge our results in the context of their applicability and usefulness. That is why statisticians are ready to play a role in a crisis like COVID-19. We see that students in Canada are developing an understanding that statistics is a route to a rewarding and stable career, as the numbers of majors and the interest in taking statistics courses is exploding.
Don: CANSSI is always evolving its programs to prepare students for research challenges in the future and to be successful in their careers, wherever statistics takes them.
Lisa: That fits the nature of Statistics, which as a discipline is constantly evolving to meet emerging challenges involving complex data.