Mireille Régnier : 'Contributing to knowledge of the human genome through computing fascinated me'
© Inria / Photo Kaksonen
For the first annual Maths Week, March 12-18, the theme was "Women and Maths". It offered an opportunity to interview three researchers and team leaders at Saclay, with three different profiles and careers, but who all chose to discuss with us their choice to work in science and research. This week we met with Mireille Régnier, head of the Amib project-team.
Maths has always been like a game for me. I remember how I won the mental arithmetic contest in primary school. I really liked that kind of exercise. In secondary school I spent my time in maths class trying to demonstrate Fermat's Last Theorem i.e. finding the positive integers that satisfy the equation xn + yn = zn . I can't even remember where I had stumbled on that, in one of the many books I read no doubt, but it was of interest to me because it involved integers and I enjoyed working with integers. I liked to count, play with figures, work around constraints and find a solution...What amused me was the playful side. You try to do something, you see if it works and then you adapt it to reach your goal.
In secondary school I wasn't only interested in maths. On the contrary, I was really keen on history for example, but I couldn't imagine making a career of it. When we were selecting courses of study at the end of secondary school, my maths teacher even told my parents I was more of a liberal arts type! But I still chose maths in high school and since I was in a girl’s school where the teachers didn't push the students to study science, it was an unusual choice of study for me and my four sisters.
Concerning my career path, I think I was lucky to grow up in an exceptional family environment. My mother earned her baccalaureate and went on to university, which was rare for her generation. When the New Maths were introduced in school, which led to some heated debates, she organised, in the context of the school board, courses for the parents so they could help their children with the homework. My father wanted his daughters to have the best education available. Even though both of them had a liberal arts background, my parents were convinced that the future was in science.
So, in a nutshell, I loved maths, I studied maths and in life it's important to do what you love! I followed a traditional path, from prep school to the ENS (École Normale Supérieure) where I did a Bachelor in physics before going back to maths. What was interesting at the ENS was the mix of disciplines, with people studying Russian, history, literature. We'd cross paths at the cafeteria. There was an exchange of ideas and I made good friends in other fields.
Then I did a teaching degree in mathematics and an internship in Russian at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the USSR because I loved this language and had been studying it since secondary school and it was very hard to get a visa without an administrative invitation. In Russia I met two very important people: first of all my husband, who was taking the same course, and Bernard Lang, from Iria (editor's note: this was before Inria became a national research institute), who has since become a specialist in open source software, and who very easily convinced me in the plane on the way back home to do a DEA (former Master) in computer science. Then he spent a great deal of time helping me choose the right DEA, at Orsay, and then debugging my programmes over the phone. At the time I was the only person using the card machine at the ENS and I also liked to go over to Polytechnique to use their text editor, which at the time (!) was a major innovation! I naturally shifted from maths to computing. In fact I like solving problems and seeing an elegant solution. But in computing, if you have a problem you want an effective solution, that is to say, you're not happy with just saying there is a solution, you have to construct it too and I really enjoy constructing a solution.
We have a huge number of problems to explore
where computing plays an essential role in advancing biology
During my DEA I had two professors who helped determine the next step in my career. As I found Jean Vuillemin's courses on algorithms absolutely wonderful I searched for a thesis on the subject. And because I was lucky enough to meet Philippe Flajolet, an expert in computing and combinatorics, I did my thesis with him. It was important to meet him at that time, when a lot of things were falling into place. Then I was recruited by Iria, before I even defended by thesis. In terms of research themes, my specialisation was determined by a series of encounters and singular circumstances. I took part in a conference where I was questioned on a problem of combinatorics and word algorithms and I delved into the subject Then in 1987, François Mitterrand asked the president of Iria, Alain Bensoussan, to produce a report on the link between computing and biology and I was among the people designated to write this report. The (tenuous) link with my field was that words are sequences of letters just like the genome (simply speaking)... It was a very arduous task to understand these problems so quickly, even though we were well-received by the biology labs. This report offered an opportunity to discover a wide range of applications for my research, of problems that needed solving, while sequencing of the human genome was just getting started. I therefore decided to pursue this path.
From my point of view, what was important was not to talk about health, or medicine; it was the human genome that fascinated me. There was talk of it in the papers. It was really exciting to be a part of a project like that. As for computing, there were some interesting problems in combinatorics, regarding the sequences at first and now regarding the structures. And then in 2001, the sequencing was finished earlier than planned, but it had opened the door to many other fascinating fields, like biotechnologies, DNA chips... The simultaneous development of technologies and potential applications led to a boom in new problems, like regulating genes, predicting structures, their interactions, systems biology, annotation constraints with the sheer amount of data... We still have a huge number of problems to explore where computing plays an essential role in advancing biology.
Research theme: Biology and computing
The Amib team studies structural biology and more specifically RNA molecules, proteins and their interactions. Cellular processes, a function of these interactions, are studied in systems biology. The algorithmic is based on formal methods, stochastic properties and combinatorics. Annotation, organisation of experimental data and extraction of relevant knowledge from large databases comprise a third research stream, along with software development.
Mireille Régnier, research team leader