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The Big Challenge… With Melinda Mills

With the ever-increasing potential of new technology and the exponential growth of the life sciences field, researchers are always running into new problems to solve. In this interview series, we get scientists’ opinions on the ‘Big Challenge’ in their field and the steps being taken to address it. From new and unique hurdles to fresh takes on common problems, we dive into the complexities of the research landscape.

In this interview, we chat to Melinda Mills (Professor of Demography and Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford) about the big challenges in demography, population health and more.

FLG: Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your background, your role and what you work on?

Melinda: My name is Melinda Mills, and I’m Professor of Demography and Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford. I also lead the Demographic Science Unit and the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science. The centre is actually a good reflection of my work, it’s very interdisciplinary. We look at a lot of things in relation to populations, health, employment, fertility, mortality, disease and life expectancy. Therefore, our work involves people from multiple disciplines: demography, economics, sociology, epidemiology, molecular genetics and genomics, statistics and many other areas. We work by combining different types of high dimensional data, from genomics to satellite resolution data, to look at people living in different environments, and why that’s important.

FLG: What would you say is the big challenge in your field?

Melinda: I think there are a few things, if I come at it from a substantive angle. Because my research is interdisciplinary, one of the challenges is to get many different perspectives, approaches, voices and techniques working together to answer the same question. We often have these ‘grand challenge’ questions, where we want to know how to solve an issue related to a disease, or how to solve an issue related to inequality in certain groups, things like that. One of the challenges is to make sure that the econometricians can talk to the geneticists, and the geneticists can talk to the geographers and so on. Getting all of these people speaking a language everyone can understand is important, because we’ve realised that a lot of the challenges that we have to deal with actually involve a lot of different perspectives, voices and approaches.

I think another challenge is around data. This is something that I often encounter; I’ll get very good genomic or health data, but it won’t have very good non-health related personal, environmental or exposome data. Or the data about the individual isn’t great, for example, information about their socioeconomic circumstance, their household or their social network. It’s that special combination of all the different types of data that we need. It’s challenging because some of it exists, but it’s just not released. It takes some will for people to link different types of data together. It’s a regulatory issue. It’s a technical issue. It’s a willingness issue. It’s a commercial issue. It’s lots of different things. Even when I’m trying to link some data from different government departments, for example, it can be a political issue.

So, those are some of the challenges – trying to get people focused on answering questions from different perspectives, because I think you get real innovation from that. The other challenge is trying to unlock all of these different data sources and getting people working together to do that.

FLG: Why should people care about those issues being addressed?

Melinda: I was a Scientific Adviser in the UK, and also for the European Commission, during and after COVID. It became very clear then that to answer these ‘big challenges’ in relation to disease, and in relation to COVID and the pandemic, you needed a lot of different voices in the room. You needed somebody to say, “Hey, wait a minute, if we’re only focusing on modelling deaths and hospitalisation, what about these people that are having mental health issues at home?” Or, “What are the economic consequences? What are the consequences for domestic abuse?” All these different issues. So, I think that bringing multiple voices into the room is important.

I think it’s really unfortunate that we had this example with the pandemic, but we had this big challenge of trying to measure things in real time. We realised, “Oh, we have this data, but we can’t unlock it. And there’s a rule that means we can’t give you this data, and we can’t link it to mortality.” You start to realise that this interdisciplinary issue is real and it’s problematic, and it stops progress and real potential discoveries.

I think people should care because you can come to better solutions that will help people in their daily lives. If you think in relation to disease, for example, obesity or type two diabetes, or other related diseases and outcomes, there aren’t just medical factors at play, there are lifestyle factors. Some people don’t have the availability of green space to exercise, or they can’t access fresh food, or their housing conditions aren’t ideal. You really have to get multiple people in the room to try to solve these problems. If you just look at it in a very narrow, siloed way, just doing statistical modelling or just looking at disease in a very medical way, you won’t come to a better solution that will fundamentally help people in their lives. People are very aware of that, they’re aware that a lot of the conditions we have aren’t just purely because of biology and medical aspects, but also because of opportunities and how unequal this is in society.

FLG: What is currently being done or what do you think should be being done to help address those problems?

Melinda: For some of the problems, there is a growth and understanding in the scientific world, in industry and in government about trying to come together to think about how we can address these problems. How can we get different people in the room? That’s definitely happening, and we’re focusing on some really big, grand challenges. You can see that starting.

What else should be done? I think there’s a long way to go for the other challenge that I mentioned about data. I think some of the governments and industry, etc., should start working together. We have to change some regulatory situations; we have things like GDPR, which works towards making things more transparent and letting people understand how their data is being used. So, we have to think in terms of regulation, but also bring the ethics and technical data experts into it as well. Often, they say, “I can’t give this data out,” or “I can’t help you with this problem because it’s a privacy and consent issue.” But then you think about private companies, and how much data they have on people as well! I think there’s got to be more awareness.

Generally, people are quite altruistic, and if their data is being used for a good cause, they won’t mind having it linked or being used in that way. We use a lot of whole population data from Scandinavia and from some other different countries where we are able to do things like that, and we’re able to solve big questions and look at entire populations. For me, that’s one of the more interesting things that I would like to look at – if we’re not doing it in our country, or in our locality, then look at who else is doing it and ask why it isn’t a problem for them. Because I think there’s a lot of risk aversion as well.

FLG: What advice do you have for somebody who’s up and coming, trying to break into this field and address these problems?

Melinda: The advice I would give is to just be really open. There are so many different career paths and research paths that you can take and what I always tell people is, you’re never stuck. Just try things out! So, it could be that you take a job in industry or academia or government, and you think, “This isn’t for me.” But working in these different fields, it’s fluid, you can move back and forth.

This sounds really cliche, but you have to do what you love. For me that’s one of the main things, and it’s usually what you’re good at, too. Don’t resist it, work on something that you’re passionate about. I come to work, and I’m very excited about the kind of things I’m going to do and I’m surrounded by really, really great people that are very committed to solving different scientific problems and issues, or  even sometimes technical issues. They’re there and they get up and they have a purpose, and they love what they’re doing. I think it’s really important to follow what you’re passionate about. Sometimes it can be that rock you didn’t turn over.

Just try things and you’re never stuck. Maybe you try something and it turns out to be complete failure. Well, then, now you know! So, yeah, just fail a lot and take risks.

Want to hear more from Melinda Mills? She’ll be at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata in London in just two weeks time, discussing her work on genomics and shift work. Here’s what Melinda had to say about the event.

FLG: You’re speaking at our London Festival in January. What made you agree to speak at the Festival and what are you looking forward to about it?

Melinda: Well, I think it will be an interesting Festival full of people thinking about similar sorts of problems and issues. It’s open to people from industry, from academia, from multiple perspectives, which I like a lot. I’m really excited to talk about our work on nightshift workers and how you can introduce genomics in those unexpected areas, where it can be used to think about intervention for more complex social and behavioural traits. I’m just very interested in discussing my work on a platform where people might not always expect it to be discussed. These places are always good. It’s a form of discussion and exchange.