News / 2 September 2022

Share something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know:
I’m a bit of a DIY handyman and am not afraid of taking on quite ambitious building projects. For example, I built a new wall in my house, complete with hand-made windows and doors. I have always said that carpentry is my backup plan if my science career tanks.

Why did you become a scientist?
I’ve always been a sponge for knowledge and interested in all things scientific. I first went to university to understand how microprocessors and, by extension, computers work, but then realised that complex systems, such as the human body, are a much more challenging target with potential individual impacts on people’s lives.

There is great joy when you realise that you have begun to understand another piece of the world that was unclear to you previously. Obviously, the more you know, the more things you see that you don’t know, so the work of a scientist never ends.

How would you explain your work at a dinner party?
At the moment, I’m focusing on ageing and how it’s related to the burden of common diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia. The world is heading towards a demographic bomb that will affect almost all countries (with the exception of some African countries, most have an inverted age pyramid where the old are already outnumbering the young). This is going to cause fundamental societal and healthcare challenges that we have never encountered before. In parallel, the world is also getting fatter, including young age groups, due to the modern lifestyle.

Through my work of analysing molecular and genetic data from large human surveys and biobanks, I’m aiming to understand how ageing metabolism fits into the great transformation of humanity and if there are ways we can address the decline in metabolic health before it manifests as serious diseases later in life.

Which unresolved question would you most like to answer?
I think we’re lacking comprehensive understanding of how the combination of time, genetics and environment makes some people metabolically unhealthy, while others stay active long into their twilight years.

The key to meeting this challenge, in my opinion, is detailed time-series data, which unfortunately is very difficult to obtain from humans. It would be great if I had access to multiple decades of detailed observation on how millions of individuals eat, exercise, sleep and work on a daily basis, with blood and urine data measured at regular intervals. Then we could really start figuring out personal health recommendations at a societal scale.

What has been a highlight of your research career to date?
We recently completed the first study of metabolism in the UK Biobank, a cohort of half a million people. It is not a highlight because it produced an impactful paper (we don’t know that yet), but because it was so exciting to analyse a database of such epic proportions. Public datasets, such as the UK Biobank, have opened a completely new frontier for data scientists like me.

Name one tool you can’t do without. 
Like everyone else, my work would stop without a computer connected to the Internet. Software really is not much of a problem, since I write most of the tools myself.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve received came via a question: ‘What is the take-home message?’ This is what you, as a scientist, need to figure out from a complex set of results, and then deliver to the public.

Thinking of your work though this lens helps to better focus your efforts on something that matters beyond your own, sometimes narrow, field of interest.

More about Ville’s research

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