Software Engineer Björn Wouters

Björn Wouters (25) started in January 2019 as an intern at The Hyve; a few months later he joined the Target Discovery team as a full-time software engineer. If you want to know more about Open Targets, Björn is the company’s specialist. In his spare time, he likes to socialize with friends or practice a variety of sports. Occasionally he’s able to combine socializing and sports when going on day trips or weekend hikes with his mates. Here is Björn's story.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I started my studies with a bachelor in Bioinformatics at the University of applied sciences in Nijmegen. After a while, I realized I wanted to continue my studies at a higher level and decided on the master Bioinformatics and Systems Biology at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam. I liked the master very much, even though it took me a bit longer because I was working as a software engineer at the same time. It’s expensive to live in Amsterdam, you know. The upside is that I learned a lot, combining work and study.

My master internships brought me to Utrecht. One internship was at the Utrecht University where I was involved in biology research. The group focused on plant microbes, in particular pathogens causing disease in spinach. A nice topic, but totally different from what I’m currently doing. My second internship was at The Hyve.

How did you get to know The Hyve?

I heard about the company already during my bachelor internship at the VU in Amsterdam. The coordinator of the department recommended me to get in touch with The Hyve at some point. Which is what I did, evidently. Also, an old-classmate used to work at The Hyve. So by the time I contacted them for my internship, I had a fairly clear picture of the company. Of course, you only really get to know a company when you’re working there. It immediately felt like a good match.

You also own a bioIT consultancy company?

During my first internship, at NIOO-KNAW in Wageningen, I was involved in research that was published in the top journal Nature. Together with my supervisor, I started consultancy related to this project, followed by a number of smaller projects. It was good fun and I gained a lot of experience, but this work is currently on the back burner. Working 40 hours a week at The Hyve is quite enough.

What do you do at The Hyve?

Since June 2019 I’m part of the Target Discovery team and running the Open Targets project. Open Targets is a portal that brings together a wealth of data related to drug discovery, all data that is publicly available. It consists of two systems, the Open Targets Platform and Open Targets Genetics. The Open Targets Platform allows users to explore potential therapeutic targets based on a range of integrated data. The Genetics Portal can be used to explore gene variants and disease associations based on genome-wide association studies (GWAS).

Services we offer to clients are installation of the Open Targets system, linking the system to the clients’ own data, or modifying the application to suit our clients’ needs. In practice, this means that I’m mainly working as a data scientist, with a bit of software engineering.

What do you like most about working here?

The two things I value most, is that my tasks are diverse and the colleagues are nice. We’re expected to work hard but in return we are supported in our personal development and get to decide which skills we want to develop and we can apply those skills straight away. Those are all aspects I like about my job.

Can you mention an exciting development in your field?

A few weeks ago, I attended the Festival of Genomics in London. The topics that were discussed there are very relevant to the development of Open Targets Genetics, the portal that links genetic data to phenotypes. In my view, we’ve reached a tipping point where the sequencing of whole populations leads to the development of medication that is tailor-made for specific genetic variants.

Whole genome sequencing is getting cheaper all the time. Medication is currently prescribed based on symptoms, a phenotype. But I can see that in the future prescriptions for a range of diseases will be based on the DNA sequence, the genotype. Designing drugs based on the gene sequence will also facilitate the development of medication for rare diseases that affect maybe only a handful of patients. This is certainly a trend I’m excited about.

What do you like to do when you're out of office?

I draw energy from social activities: going out to dinner with my girlfriend or joining my mates in the pub or attending a concert. I also like to exercise. During my studies I enjoyed rowing, but have not been able to keep that up. I’m doing all kinds of sports: running, fitness, spinning, boxing, you name it. Every now and then, I go hiking with my friends for a day or a weekend. Somewhere close to home – in the Netherlands or in Germany. Working in the office all day, I really like to move about when I’m off duty.