Becky Upton on Effective Data Management, Setting Standards, and Teamwork

February 1, 2024

By Irene Yeh

February 1, 2024 | One of the biggest challenges in the industry is figuring out what to do with the enormous flood of data that obstructs discoveries and solutions. Effective strategies are needed now more than ever. But then comes another challenge: how do we standardize these methods so that everyone in the industry can use them? 

“Generally… ontologies are created and then not maintained,” explains Becky Upton, Ph. D., President of the Pistoia Alliance. “It's really important that people… are taking these ontologies and using them. And it's important that they go across the industry because there's no point in just one organization using them.” 

In the latest episode of Trends from the Trenches, Upton speaks with host Stan Gloss about how her organization is developing data management efficiency and what is important for tackling these challenges. 

Setting Standards and Why They Are Needed

As technology develops and more tools are made available, more data are generated. However, interpretation is essential, according to Upton. “Being able to interpret the data needs the data to be able to be managed, maintained, and consumed easily. And one of our strategic priorities… is delivering data at scale.” 

She also considers harnessing AI to expedite R&D as another strategic priority, but that is ineffective unless both can be used at the same time. To feed tools like large language models, generative AI, and machine learning, data must be in order. And this is why standardization is needed. 

At the Pistoia Alliance, Upton cites the Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR) principles as a point of reference for their ontology projects. These ontologies, such as data enrichment and integrating and managing data, are designed to offer researchers and others in the industry convenience and efficiency with data management. Upton also mentions a project in the works that will focus on pharma general ontology, which will allow standard naming conventions that are common across ontologies. 

Teamwork is Key

While these projects are certainly providing more efficient data management, Upton emphasizes that teamwork is the foundation of everything. “We've always said in the Pistoria Alliance—I think it's an old Persian saying—that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” 

She elaborates that a team allows one to share the burden of the cost of doing a project. And this extends throughout the industry. If an organization encounters a problem and a different organization is dealing with another problem, collaboration and leveraging each other’s ideas will unlock the solution. There is also the added benefit of learning techniques and lessons from each other, which will only serve as fuel for innovative solutions and ideas. 

“It's not just about talking about the problems that we're having. It's actually creating [and] bringing people together to solve some of those problems, to really act upon them, and see where we can go,” she says. 

To hear Upton talk about the history of the Pistoia Alliance, the organization’s plans for the future, and her own experiences in the field, check out the latest Trends from the Trenches episode here.