Ostell to direct National Center for Biotechnology Information

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James Ostell has been named director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of NIH’s National Library of Medicine.

In his new role, Ostell will lead an organization that maintains a series of biomedical databases as well as provides researchers with access to analysis and computing tools to better understand genes and their role in health and disease.

Ostell, who has been with NCBI since it was established in 1988, previously served as chief of its Information Engineering Branch, where he was responsible for designing, developing, building and deploying production resources that include PubMed, GenBank and dbGaP.

“These are critical biomedical resources that are used by millions of people every day, transferring petabytes of data in and out of the scientific research community,” says Ostell, who was named an NIH Distinguished Investigator in 2011.

“The data continues to grow exponentially, and computer science, data retrieval systems and analytics also are changing at a very rapid rate,” he adds. “We need to keep innovating and keep up with those advancements.”

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According to Ostell, the most significant change for the research community is the ability to leverage big data. He contends that “it’s now possible for research scientists at a lower and lower cost to produce more data of lots of different kinds—not just genomics and literature but image, expression, map and ecological data.”

However, with this tsunami of data, Ostell believes the traditional archiving model is insufficient to accommodate the sheer speed and volume of information.

“We need to move in ways where we can divide the work and allow a certain amount of ferment and community change to those emerging data types to allow the big institutes that fund those sorts of projects to have some flexibility in what they choose to fund and how they choose to do it,” he says. “While at same the time, we need to interface with those groups so that we bring our history of adhering to standards, maintaining quality and usability in a way that’s effective—and, I’d say at this point, it’s not well understood how to do that. That’s going to be a new area to explore.”

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