Careers in Science: a conversation with Ireland’s most cited scientist ever – Professor Desmond Higgins

Trinity alum Higgins explains how his passion for science motivated him to use bioinformatics to help decipher the genetic code of life

I won’t be the first one to admit that studying Science is tough. It is passion for the field that motivates and, as you progress through your degree, you inevitably start to ask yourself, – what next? You would think that studying science means learning primarily how to think critically and analyse data, but there is so much more to it than that. Today, studying science involves learning how to communicate – when working in teams, and through speaking to the public, how to learn independently, and how to be creative. These skills are invaluable in the job market, with Trinity’s science graduates going on to lead diverse roles in organisations around the globe. 

For some, the dream is to stay at university for as long as possible. Enter the PhD. Enter the goal of being a professional researcher at a university. Enter the problem; too many research scientists and not enough tenure-track jobs. A career in academia is deemed risky and almost impossible to achieve success in one’s pursuit. Although academia is a tough sector; many people starting out in science still strive to become a college professor or researcher. 

On the topic of career opportunities in science, who better to turn to about their journey, than one of the top 10 most cited scientists of all time. I spoke with Professor Desmond Higgins, who has had an impressive career in academia, starting with an undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences and then a PhD investigating the genetics of spiders, both here in Trinity. Des Higgins is currently working as a Professor of Bioinformatics at the UCD Conway Institute, and also as a principal investigator at Systems Biology Ireland, developing new bioinformatics and statistical tools for evolutionary biologists. Higgins provides insight into how the dream of never leaving the university scene could be a reality. 

From speaking to Higgins it’s clear he was interested in science from a young age and recalls being a particularly geeky kid. In primary school he read “baby science books”, and in later years would pick science books from the local library. Higgins has always been very interested in wildlife – especially birds, plants, and spiders. “I still birdwatch a lot but the spiders etc. went by the wayside ages ago”. Despite none of his relatives going to university, it never occurred to Higgins that he would not go to university to study science. “My family was not well off and it was touch and go in 1977 whether or not I would get the money together to pay the fees (250 pounds a year). At the time, I had no relatives that I knew of that went to university.”

Higgins studied botany as his undergraduate degree, then moved to zoology for his PhD.  He was interested in using computers and there was a lecturer called Robert Blackith, who specialised in mathematical biology, and he loved his undergrad lectures.  All along, he was interested in science as “it just suited the way I was wired”.  Higgin’s PhD was on methods for classifying insects based on numerical analysis of morphological features: “It required using computers and I loved insects so it sounded like a good combination but I had no inkling where it would lead”. In the beginning, Higgins was just interested in applying numerical methods and running computer programs.

The heap of information contained in this universal code requires tools and technology to sieve through the data to help it make sense.”

One of the major challenges in science over the past century has been deciphering the intricate and perplexing genetic code of life. Scientists have struggled to determine the entire genetic material (DNA) of many thousands of organisms.  It comes out as sequences of letters, millions of letters long.  The heap of information contained in this universal code requires tools and technology to sieve through the data to help it make sense.  The onset of developments in the computer science field permitted the development of these tools to mine this data and a new field of bioinformatics was born.

Higgins is among the pioneers of this new era of bioinformatics. What started out as an early fascination in the 1980s developed into his career as a bioinformatician. Higgins was nearing the end of his PhD when a postdoctorate position came up in Genetics in TCD in 1985 for a bioinformatician: “I was desperate to get it and assumed I had no chance but I was the only qualified applicant.” Higgins then worked at the Genetics department up until 1990 where he admits that you really do need luck sometimes to get a job.  Again, he had absolutely no idea where it might lead: “It just sounded very cool and I would get to do even more computing and learn about molecular genetics. It really was an accident that I got into it (bioinformatics)”.

It was from that first postdoctorate position that Higgins began writing computer programs to compare DNA sequences to look for patterns. This helps to tell what some of the sequences do and helps us to compare how different organisms are related and how they work.

The algorithm was created so that it could be used on personal computers, leading to the use of CLUSTAL becoming standard in laboratories around the world.”

Higgins is well-known for developing a series of computer programs called CLUSTAL, which perform multiple sequence alignment by taking segments of DNA or protein and attempting to align them to what they have in common or how they differ. He wrote the first version of CLUSTAL on a computer with very little memory, making a tool with an outstanding impact on the life science field. The algorithm was created so that it could be used on personal computers, leading to the use of CLUSTAL becoming standard in laboratories around the world. 

The 1994 research paper, co-authored by Higgins for a set of computer programs called CLUSTAL for comparing a set of DNA or protein sequences, is his most well-renowned research.  When he wrote his first version in 1988, there were no programs available for personal computers to do this and the internet had barely started.  The computer programs “allowed bench molecular geneticists to compare sequences in their offices or labs and I had to distribute the first versions by post, with envelopes, floppy disks, stamps, and handwritten addresses”.  It would be a long while before they could be distributed easily. 

Higgins’ paper set an international standard for DNA sequence analysis. A turning point, where Higgins realised he had made an important finding, was one day when he was working in Heidelberg, in the library of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), he “saw a paper in Science (one of the world’s top academic journals), that cited my software and used it to figure out something very clever about mutations in the Cystic Fibrosis disease gene”.  Gradually, more citations appeared, he would get maybe 1 a day. By 1997, he was getting about 10 a day and that peaked around 2010, when he was getting 20 a day.  The total to date is around 150,000 citations, putting him on the list of the most highly cited scientists in the world – an amazing achievement. It is Higgin’s paper describing CLUSTAL which, according to Nature (another leading scientific journal) is in the top ten most highly cited scientific papers of all time. Higgins is also well known for developing T-Coffee, which is a more recent algorithm for fast and effective multiple sequence alignment.

Apart from using computers to compare molecular genetic sequences (DNA or proteins), and working on the CLUSTAL and T-Coffee programs, research in the Higgins Group focuses on developing bioinformatics and statistical tools for evolutionary biologists, including addressing molecular evolutionary questions.  Higgins’ findings are important for everyday people as “we live in the genome era”. His lab uses “DNA sequences from many organisms and regularly sequences DNA from disease tissue such as from tumours”.  Higgins’ software “helps make sense of the sequences; it helps us to find what is wrong or to find out what some sequences do”. What Professor Des Higgins does is technical; “I make tools for others to use (software). Some people might think their software is better than mine (and some software is) and more suited to other purposes.”

“It is a passport to travel and work with and collaborate with people from all over the planet. I have written papers with people from all over the world including Ireland.”

Higgins has had a star-studded career, from being named as one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds in 2014 by Thomson Reuters, to being elected a Fellow of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) in 2016, and then winning the Benjamin Franklin Award for open access in the life sciences, presented by to an individual who has promoted open and free access to materials and methods used in the life sciences, amongst other achievements. However, what Higgins personally finds exciting about life as a scientist is that  “it is a passport to travel and work with and collaborate with people from all over the planet. I have written papers with people from all over the world including Ireland, the UK, France, Norway, Germany, Spain, China, and Australia”. 

Finally, apart from being a leading scientist, Higgins enjoys playing the jazz guitar and is an avid twitcher (no, he isn’t addicted to Twitter!), but is an avid bird watcher whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds.

With many amazing moments in Higgins’ journey as a scientist, from being awarded a PhD for his research on numerical taxonomy of Pterygota insects, to receiving the Benjamin Franklin award for open access in life sciences, his words of wisdom for someone starting out in their scientific career is to: “1) be lucky; I was lucky to get that job in Genetics in 1985; 2) do what is interesting rather than what you think is going to be lucrative; 3) be curious”.

Professor Higgins admits that it “actually is hard” balancing life as a scientist as “science, these days, is very consuming of time and energy”. Higgins went on to explain that the “really successful scientists literally work 6-7 days a week. I don’t but if I was starting off now, I am not sure I would survive. It is difficult”.

The extraordinary impact of Des Higgins is not just seen in his achievements and highly cited research, but in his passion for the work that he does every single day. I have serious career envy for Higgin’s successful journey as a scientist.