By Allison Proffitt
March 14, 2012 | Heng Li, a research scientist at the Broad Institute, is the winner of the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences.
“I have to say I’m a little surprised,” Li told Bio-IT World, of the award, though his contributions speak for themselves. Li made essential contributions to the next generation sequencing (NGS) field with tools like SAMtools, BWA, MAQ, TreeSoft and TreeFam, many of which began as projects during Li’s postdoctoral fellowship with Richard Durbin at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. (The Durbin lab also trained the 2005 Franklin Award laureate, Ewan Birney.)
After his postdoc, Li spent 2002 to 2006 working with BGI on projects including silkworm sequencing, chicken variation study, heterozygote detection for capillary reads, gene finding and CAT alignment software before coming to the Broad.
The Franklin Award winner is chosen by voting members of the Bioinformatics.org community, and Li is known for his community contributions beyond the tools he’s developed. He is remarkably active in open forums for bioinformatics like seqanswers.com and biostars.org, always ready to lend a helping hand to new users in the field.
In addition to the sequence alignment tools and algorithms that Li has worked on, he’s also developed algorithms for the analysis of gene family evolution, namely TreeBeST, and he participated in the TreeFam and Ensembl GeneTrees databases.
Li is not resting on the laurels of his current achievement. “In the field, tool development has to closely follow the sequencing technologies,” he said. “My current interest is in de novo assembly.”
Li was one of seven open-source, open-access evangelists short-listed for the 2012 Franklin Award. The other finalists were: Helen Berman (Rutgers University); Carole Goble (University of Manchester); Eugene V. Koonin (NCBI/NLM/NIH); John Quackenbush (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute & Harvard School of Public Health); Bruno Sobral (Virginia Bioinformatics Institute); and Janet Thornton (European Bioinformatics Institute).