Meet Michael Hoffman

16/01/2014  |  Faces of The Princess Margaret |  Posted by: Michael Hoffman

Why did you come to The Princess Margaret?

The most important reason is because I was excited about working with the researchers both at The Princess Margaret and the surrounding University of Toronto community. This is one of the best places in the world for computational biology and genomics research.

What do you do, in layman terms?

Each of your cells has roughly the same DNA. Yet the cells do many different things—a brain cell behaves very differently from a liver cell. Cancer cells also behave quite differently from normal cells. Much of this is due to a change in the biomolecules interacting with DNA in particular locations. I try to understand the patterns and predict the consequences of these changes.

What is the best part of your job?

I work in computational biology, using software and data analysis to solve biological problems. Writing the code that helps me solve these problems is my favourite part. While pushing the boundaries of human knowledge is often messy and confusing, coding forces me to break down what I know into something discrete and exact, clearing away the uncertainty. When I can get into "the zone" and focus on programming something useful for a while, it can be very satisfying.

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

I led part of the ENCODE Project, an effort to create an encyclopedia of where DNA interacts with specific biomolecules in different kinds of human cells. Our main paper is little more than a year old but has already been cited by other scientists more than a thousand times. We also produced a resource that is used by and accelerating the work of biomedical scientists around the world.

What qualities does it take to work at The Princess Margaret?

You need to have an inquisitive mind. No one is going to tell you everything you need to know. When you don't know something, you need to be willing to seek out the answer. That's one of the most important qualities for working in science or medicine anywhere.

What does Personalized Cancer Medicine mean to you?

Every cancer is different, and so is every patient. There can't be a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer medicine, as even a method that works for a majority of patients is going to produce unacceptable results in too many. Researchers have begun to understand the differences between cancer types at a fairly crude level and use this to create more targeted therapies. As we learn more, we'll be able to pinpoint both treatment and prevention approaches even further, helping people who are under-served by our current approaches.

If you could have a super power – what would it be and why?

I wish I could function completely without sleep. I love sleep but it takes up so much time and there are so many things I'd rather work on.

Cat or Dog person?

Dog person. I'm allergic to cats!

What was the first concert you ever went to?

The first big concert I went to was Orbital. They recreate as much of the music as they can spontaneously, and I've never seen an audience get quite as into the music.  Absolutely incredible.

Thank you Michael! Michael Hoffman is a principal investigator at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where he researches the application of machine learning techniques to epigenomic data. He previously led the National Institutes of Health ENCODE Project's large-scale integration task group while at the University of Washington. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he conducted computational genomics studies at the European Bioinformatics Institute. He was named a Genome Technology Young Investigator and has received several awards for his academic work, including a NIH K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award.