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Parker Antin: Leading the Nation's Life Science Initiatives

By Shelley Littin, iPlant Collaborative

Not every research or technology project can boast that its director also heads up national initiatives in life sciences and biotechnology. The University of Arizona’s Parker Antin is a unique case among project leaders.

Parker Antin: "Everyone associated with iPlant is driven by the potential to truly transform how life science is conducted in the U.S., and around the world. Being asked to lead such a project is an honor, and for sure the biggest challenge of my career." (Image: Mark Thaler, UA Health Sciences BioCommunications)

Antin leads the iPlant Collaborative, the UA-headquartered computational infrastructure project that is the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s premiere data management service.

A professor of cellular and molecular medicine and member of the UA’s BIO5 Institute, Antin serves as Associate Dean for Research for the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and he is President of the Federation of Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an umbrella science policy and advocacy organization that represents 27 scientific societies and 125,000 scientists.

“Antin’s diverse research background makes him the perfect choice as Principal Investigator,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, Senior Vice President for Research at the UA. “With 30 years of research that has spanned everything from early embryo development to stem cell biology and bioinformatics, Antin will further the expansion of iPlant as the tool to understand how life works from genome to phenome.”

A life in life sciences

Antin earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982. After a postdoctoral position at the University of California, San Francisco, Antin joined the UA’s department of animal sciences in 1992.

He was promoted to associate professor in 1998 and joined the UA College of Medicine, where he currently oversees an active laboratory training graduate and postdoctoral researchers studying development of skeletal muscle and the cardiovascular system, and often leveraging iPlant’s infrastructure.

“For the past ten years I have received National Institutes of Health funding to provide genomics-related resources to the avian research community,” Antin said. “Along with Eric Lyons, an iPlant co-principal investigator, and Fiona McCarthy, a faculty member in the UA’s school of animal and comparative biomedical sciences, I have submitted a renewal grant application that will expand the project and integrate it into the iPlant infrastructure. Several other large projects presently leverage iPlant in a similar manner.”

Antin also is a national advocate for science policy and funding. His roles as associate dean of CALS and president of FASEB frequently take him to Washington, D.C. to advocate for science policy positions that enhance the scientific enterprise.

Antin’s research is supported by the National Institutes of Health, with past support from the United States Department of Agriculture, the American Heart Association, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, and the NSF.

Managing the mission: the iPlant Collaborative

At the helm of the UA-led iPlant Collaborative housed at the UA's BIO5 Institute, Antin is working to expand the capabilities and impact of the $100 million NSF computational infrastructure platform.

“As more fields of science become driven by the acquisition and analysis of very large data sets, ways to store, share, analyze, and archive data and results are becoming critical roadblocks to scientific advancement,” Antin said. “iPlant provides a platform for researchers to achieve these goals.”

iPlant was created in 2008 by the NSF as a national computational infrastructure service for plant scientists. The platform’s capabilities and team of scientists and developers rendered it quickly successful among an international plant science community. In 2013, the original NSF grant was renewed, along with the expanded directive to provide data management services for all life science initiatives, globally.

“iPlant’s mission has been to design, develop, deploy and maintain a national cyberinfrastructure to enable basic and applied biological research and to train scientists in its use,” Antin explained. “The challenge for the future is to dramatically scale up our infrastructure while providing improved access to the resources and services that our users have come to appreciate.”

To achieve this directive, Antin is guiding the project to create more sophisticated data scientists by offering high level training, empowering researchers with robust tools for data driven discovery, and sustaining an improved ecosystem of interoperability to ensure that iPlant can integrate seamlessly with commercial and other academic resources.

A heavy order, it may seem, but since its inception the iPlant Collaborative has developed and implemented a highly functional infrastructure for the plant science community, Antin said, perfectly positioning the project now to become an enabling resource for all life sciences.

When Antin first was approached about becoming principal investigator of iPlant, he hesitated. Yet, “as I learned more about iPlant’s expanded scope, I was excited to be given the opportunity to help move iPlant through the next stages in its evolution,” he said.

“As I meet with iPlant staff, I am struck by the enthusiasm I see for achieving this goal and with it the opportunity to significantly enhance scientific progress. Everyone associated with iPlant is driven by the potential to truly transform how life science is conducted in the U.S., and around the world. Being asked to lead such a project is an honor, and for sure the biggest challenge of my career.”

Going forward, Antin said: “The technological challenges are significant; the payoffs can be transformational.”

In addition to Antin, iPlant is directed by an executive team including co-principal investigators Nirav Merchant, director of information technology at Arizona Research Laboratories; Eric Lyons, UA assistant professor of plant sciences and creator of CoGe, a comparative genetics platform that runs on iPlant’s infrastructure; Matt Vaughn of Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas, Austin; and Doreen Ware of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories.

The iPlant Collaborative is a federation of the University of Arizona, Texas Advanced Computing Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. iPlant is funded by National Science Foundation award numbers DBI-0735191 and DBI-1265383.