After an Erasmus exchange in Germany during his Master’s in Industrial Engineering, Olivier Gevaert knew he would someday move abroad. An additional Master’s in Artificial Intelligence triggered his interest in machine learning and data analysis, which brought him to KU Leuven’s Department of Electrical Engineering. There, he obtained his Ph.D. in the Bioinformatics group, kick-starting his career in Life Sciences. Since then, his research has focused on analyzing data from cancer patients to build models that have the potential to improve their outcomes. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor at Stanford University with his own research group active in the field of multi-scale data fusion.
“After my Ph.D.,, I was very interested in moving abroad,” Gevaert says. “I applied for and received multiple scholarships that made this possible. For example, the Belgian-American Educational Foundation (BAEF) supports the exchange of Belgian and American students on every level from high school to Ph.D. study. Moving to the USA was a straightforward choice as it is where the best research in bioinformatics is performed. While it was a toss-up between Harvard and Stanford, the climate at the west coast convinced us to move there. What started out as a one year post-doctoral project has turned into eight years and a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor.”
What is the topic of your research at Stanford?
“My first post-doc was in the Department of Radiology. This seems like a strange connection, as my focus has always been oncology, using data from cancer patients to diagnose patients and predict their treatment. Stanford’s Radiology Department however, made the link between imaging and bioinformatics. I found it very intriguing to be able to correlate what’s happening on a molecular level with what you see on radiology images. This field, called imaging genomics or radiogenomics, only saw the light in 2010 and is currently booming. This research has led to my current faculty position in the Department of Medicine. I am still active in radiogenomics, but my research is much broader and encompasses any type of cancer patient data.”
What are the main differences in the professional climate between Belgium and Stanford?
“The critical mass at Stanford is a lot bigger. Stanford has a world expert in every domain and the campus-based model stimulates the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. My research is on the interface of computer science, statistics, medicine and molecular biology, and I am able to collaborate with experts from each of these areas who are within a five-minute walk. There is also less hierarchy among the faculty members, and everyone is very positive and enthusiastic, which supports taking new initiatives and risk. Working with people with different backgrounds means you are more deeply challenged intellectually, resulting in a broader view of your research and its problems.
“As a young researcher, I think it is easier to obtain funding and build a laboratory in the USA. The growth in Belgium is much slower. You also get much more freedom here. You are considered an independent lab and can do anything you like as long as you keep bringing in funding. New projects are needed continuously, as even my own wages depend on this. In Europe, independent investigators are appointed differently with guaranteed support for their own salary.”
Stanford is close to Silicon Valley. Is there an exchange between the academic world and industry?
“Absolutely, we have frequent interactions with start-ups and companies. Especially now, with the current hype around deep learning in medicine, pathology and radiology. Many start-ups are being created to apply deep learning to extract information from any type of medical images.
“Many Stanford faculty members have founded or are involved wit one or two start-ups. It is a part of the University’s culture as Stanford owes its current success to entrepreneurship. It started in the 1950’s or 60’s, and the first success story was Hewlett-Packard, which was founded by Stanford faculty members.
“In my own research, I always keep in mind how we can bring the models we create to the patient. This is only possible through some kind of commercialization, and my current position gives me the opportunity to consider this. A spin-off is definitely in the plans, but a lot of the research we do is long-term and its development will require time. However, there are some contacts with investors already to see if some of our results can be applied. “
What is different about the everyday life in California?
“It took some time to adjust to the American way of life. For example, to get anywhere, you need a car. Therefore, everything felt very distant initially. Now, we feel very much at home. The climate helps to be enthusiastic because it is always warm. In addition, the nature is spectacular. I have developed a passion for cycling that I did not have in Belgium. In a short 15-minute ride, we are outside the city in the mountains surrounding Stanford, where the bike is king.
“Obviously, we miss our families and the Belgian culture dearly. Life in general is also very expensive. With companies like Facebook and Google close by, the cost-of-living around Stanford is very high.”
Are you settled in the USA or do you plan on coming back to Belgium in the future?
“For now, we have settled down here. We are planning on buying a house next year. It is currently being built by Stanford. I’m halfway through my tenure track and will be up for a promotion in a few years. In the mean-time, I am steadily building my lab and enjoying my research and life in California."