Dr Craig Glastonbury – Senior Machine Learning Researcher at BenevolentAI

What led you to your career in AI?

I guess I come from a non-traditional background for someone who works in tech and specifically AI.  I did a Biology degree at Imperial College London.  I was rather useless in the lab, but I really enjoyed genetics, and computational and mathematical side of the degree.  Before and during my degree I was always keen to learn how tech worked and I use to code in my early teens.  After my degree, I was unsure whether I wanted to stay in academia so I decided to become an Ethical Hacker for a year.  Whilst I enjoyed the subject of my work, I found the large corporations (Government and Investment banks) I worked for, didn’t really care about fixing the vulnerabilities we found but rather they just wanted to tick a box to say they were compliant and move on.  I wanted my work to have impact so I decided to quit and start a PhD in statistical genetics at King’s College London.  After my PhD I became a postdoc at the University of Oxford for just under 2 years but I left academia to become a Machine Learning researcher at BenevolentAI, a company that is trying to accelerate end-to-end drug discovery using Machine Learning.  Here I’m able to use both my knowledge of Biology and ML by applying and developing probabilistic methods for analysing omics data for disease endotyping and patient stratification.

Do you feel as though your postgraduate degree has provided you with skills and expertise you now use in your current profession that you otherwise would not have developed?  If so, what are they? 

Yes.  My PhD certainly developed my programming skills and statistics knowledge.  It also taught me how to plan a research project, ask and answer scientific questions and digest scientific papers.  However, I also self-taught a lot (and still do!) out of pure interest.  For example, understanding the mathematics or theory of machine learning algorithms was never explicitly taught in my postgraduate education, but something I find very interesting.  I think my PhD did allow me to focus and learn skills that were both useful for my research and also of interest to me and I would encourage all postgraduates to think about the transferable skills they are learning.

Do you think people with postgraduate degrees in Biological Sciences have an ‘edge’ that means they are particularly employable and/or sought after in your profession?

I think anyone who has an interest in computer science and/or maths/stats have an advantage.  However, bioscientists who are computationally proficient have an enormous edge as pharmaceutical companies and healthcare startups start to analyse huge troves of data to improve human health.  These data are usually heavily dependent on domain knowledge, and in my current job it’s important I understand how the experiments were carried out, data were generated and what questions make sense to ask.

What would you like current postgraduates to know about the career paths they could possibly take?

Learn to analyse your own data, even if you’re 100% wetlab.  Programming and statistical know-how are probably the two most employable and transferable skills you can have today.