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Baseline Sudoku: What do puzzles and computational biology share in common?

| Written by:

Kasley Killam

Community Engagement Manager, Verily

If you're an avid fan of number and logic puzzles, you've probably heard of Dr. Sudoku. He's a seven-time U.S. Puzzle Champion, three-time World Sudoku Champion, and the author of numerous books and a daily blog about puzzles.

Aside from his fame and acclaim, what you may not know about Dr. Sudoku is that he holds a PhD in chemistry from Harvard University, is the head of computational biology at Verily, and has contributed to Project Baseline since its inception. His real name is Thomas Snyder.

Thanks to Thomas, we not only have a sophisticated program around computational biology, but also a one-of-a-kind, custom sudoku featuring the Project Baseline logo. Here it is for you to print, try, and enjoy!

Instructions: Enter a single digit from 1-9 into each cell so that no digit repeats in any row, column, or 3x3 box.

We sat down with Thomas to learn more about his work and his hopes for what Project Baseline can achieve.

Kasley: Tell us about your work at Verily.

Thomas: My background is in immunology and genomics. Back when I joined Verily, I led our multiple sclerosis initiative and was involved with some of the initial pilot studies that set the foundation for the Project Baseline study to launch a few years later.

I'm particularly interested in developing new technologies to read out the immune system. Your adaptive immune system stores memories of everything you've experienced from bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, to environmental exposures. In Project Baseline and in other Verily initiatives, we are looking at the immune system in both healthy and unhealthy people with the goal of developing better diagnostics and more precise therapies for disease, including understanding why the immune system may be overly activated in people with autoimmune disease.

Kasley: You specialize in both computational biology and puzzles. How are these different or alike?

Thomas: Both science and puzzles are about problem solving. To get started, you have to determine what you know and don't know about a problem, choose an approach to begin, and iterate on that approach with other ideas if you get stuck. I regularly solve hundreds of kinds of puzzles, but I'm particularly good at sudoku because I can take one look at the full grid and quickly process the information, such as knowing exactly how many of each digit there are in the grid and where the best spots to make progress are. When I look at a scientific figure, the information processing is the same, and I'm looking for unusual patterns that stand out for further investigation.

The key difference is that with puzzles, you know there's an answer. With science, there could be multiple answers or one or none. In both cases, the search for the answer should be fun!

Kasley: What most excites you about Project Baseline?

Thomas: The breadth and depth of data all in one study from a longitudinally-tracked population. A big challenge in science is trying to connect genotype with phenotype to understand health comprehensively, particularly in early stages of disease. Project Baseline allows us start to bring these together, generating hypotheses to explore more deeply.

Next story: Faces of Baseline: Gary

From now on, Gary Quigg will celebrate two milestones every April 11 — his birthday and his Project Baseline study enrollment anniversary.