Italian-born neuroscientist Vittorio Gallo first got interested in research through his appreciation of art, which made him wonder how our brains process colors, forms and compositions.
That curiosity launched Gallo on a scientific journey that starts a new chapter Monday, when he takes on the role of chief scientific officer at Seattle Children’s, the Seattle-based children’s medical center.
Gallo most recently served as interim chief academic officer and interim director of Children’s National Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
He will provide scientific leadership for Seattle Children’s Research Institute, home to around 2,400 employees, and will serve as a Seattle Children’s senior vice president.
Gallo told GeekWire he’s looking forward to forging connections with Seattle Children’s and institutions and companies across the Seattle region to address research questions in pediatrics while leveraging technologies like artificial intelligence, which “has the potential to revolutionize healthcare,” he said.
Gallo began his scientific career investigating the molecules involved in transmitting signals in the brain, and later turned to studying neonatal brain development and injury. His first stop after moving to Seattle last week was the Seattle Art Museum, where he and his partner took in an art show.
“I’m excited about bringing my own skillset but blending my experience and adapting my skillset to the culture of this institution,” said Gallo of his new position. “I’m really looking forward to this change.”
We spoke to Gallo about his vision for the future of SCRI, diversity in science, art, and how AI will change biomedicine. Read more from our interview with Gallo below, edited for brevity and clarity.
GeekWire: Thanks for chatting with us, Dr. Gallo. How do you see Seattle Children’s Research Institute building on its existing strengths?
Vittorio Gallo: There is an opportunity to bring all these centers and research areas at SCRI together with big ideas that are focused on challenges in the area of pediatric research. For example, for mental health in children and adolescents, I want to think more broadly about areas of challenge and how we can leverage strengths that exist in the institute to address these challenges and find partnerships with outside institutions. How do we bring together different centers at SCRI to address ideas that could be in mental health, cancer, artificial intelligence and system biology?
Can you talk about the role of collaboration in the Seattle research community with SCRI?
We have great institutions here in Seattle, such as the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and the Allen Institute. Seattle itself has also always been an incubator for innovation. A lot of ideas and programs that have really changed the way that we live come from Seattle.
The arrival of a chief scientific officer gives an opportunity to elevate the profile of SCRI and to really connect with other institutions, because connection requires partnerships between different leaders. But I also want to go a little bit deeper and understand the biotech and the innovation community here in Seattle, and target specific programs that could benefit from partnerships.
What will be your role in fostering commercialization and spinouts, and what are effective strategies to support such activity?
Seattle Children’s has already made significant investments in innovation and commercialization. My role is to support the bi-directional process between research and the technology commercialization department. Researchers often think that intellectual property and commercialization would be a distraction from their main focus.
We need to strengthen the infrastructure to facilitate that process so that investigators feel that it is streamlined — that it doesn’t take too much time away from their major focus of research. That will include some training of investigators. We also need to strike a balance between sharing ideas while at the same time protecting intellectual property — that’s also a role that the chief scientific officer will have.
Finally, the National Institutes of Health recently came up with REACH: Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs. There are opportunities to partner with other institutions to get NIH funding for these hubs. Their main purpose is to look at opportunities for intellectual property and commercialization ideas that come from the research community.
What are some of the opportunities you see for AI in biomedicine and pediatrics?
It’s obvious to me that artificial intelligence has the potential to not only improve outcomes but to also to affect many areas of the healthcare ecosystem and to make it more efficient through streamlining a lot of processes. These include creating interfaces, platforms, data analytics and datasets. There are also many specific areas in pediatric care and research where artificial intelligence can make an impact, particularly imaging analysis, research documentation and dataset work, and workflow efficiency in general.
In neuroscience and all areas of research we have accumulated huge datasets in imaging, molecular diagnostics and phenotypic characterization of patients. Now we need to do vertical integration of these datasets where we can get specific and complete information for each patient. And that is something that artificial intelligence can really help with — I think that has the potential to revolutionize healthcare.
Can you elaborate a bit more on what types of data AI could help integrate?
Clinical data, electronic health records, molecular data, genotype, genomics, metabolomics and imaging data. In pediatrics we also think about longitudinal studies, from fetal development to adolescence. There’s going to be not only vertical integration of data, but also horizontally — longitudinally.
Tell us about your plans to continue your research here in Seattle.
I am very excited about it. I see that as an important element of my role. I want to make sure that all investigators know that I am an active investigator — I face the same problems that they feel they face, the same challenges in funding, in publishing articles. And I also want to contribute to this great research institution. I think my program on neonatal brain injury is very much aligned with the mission of the institution. I will be very busy in my leadership role, but I’m setting up my research in a way that it will be possible for me to continue to do active research and have a strong collaboration with a team and neonatologist at Children’s National.
What are some big questions you look forward to addressing in your own research?
The molecular basis of circuit formation in specific brain areas and how these neural circuits are affected by neonatal brain injury and genetic disorders, and how this affects long-term behavior and cognition in children. Also, creating and generating new preclinical models.
Others have noted that you prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. What do you think are some of the best practices in this area for institutions?
It’s about enhancing the workforce. It’s about increasing diversity in the workforce and training and in research in general. This has been a problem for a very long time, but it’s a problem that we need to resolve with programs that start early. These include the involvement of institutions in programs that bring high school and college students to research and get them excited about science, and also creating partnerships with different colleges that provide good degrees that allow students to work in research without necessarily having a bachelor’s degree or a doctorate. Institutionally, we also need to create an environment that is conducive to diversity — an environment where we can recruit a diverse workforce, because the environment is welcoming.
How did you become interested in neuroscience through your appreciation of art? Do those areas still intersect for you?
I love art. I’ve always been fascinated by how humans perceive art. Visual perception and sensory perception have always been a great fascination. I don’t study those areas, but I’m very interested in the psychology of art and sensory perception and why humans are attracted to certain images. There is a whole evolutionary hypothesis about why humans are attracted to landscapes. Why is the human brain attracted to certain aspects of symmetry and composition and colors? The neuropsychology of art is a huge area of research. I’m certainly not an expert in that, but I really enjoy it because it’s an interface between what I do in my in my work as a research leader and as a neuroscientist and what I enjoy doing in my personal life.
How do you engage with art in your personal life?
I collect art. My mother was an art historian and my grandfather was an art collector. So, I grew up with a lot of art and I grew up in Italy. It’s a country where there is a lot of sensory stimulation. I collect work on paper and I collect photography and I collect younger artists. I’m particularly interested in collecting minority artists and young voices in art.