Net, bugs and rock ’n’ roll

He has sold his own paintings on the Internet, launched a number of websites and opened for Lenny Kravitz. We meet the biologist Marcel Salathé, one of the world’s rare experts in digital epidemiology. By Sophie Gaitzsch

(From "Horizons" no. 108 March 2016)​​​

Our first question to Marcel Salathé was: Are you a pioneer in digital epidemiology? His circumspect reply was, "Hmm, more like somebody who started to work in this field early on". Salathé is a 40-year-old biologist from Basel who uses new methods of digital communication to study illnesses and their propagation. When he talks about himself he shows typical Swiss modesty. Yet he still wins the respect of his peers. "Marcel was one of the first to see Twitter as a source of health information", says Andrew Read, a former colleague at Pennsylvania State University. "Many people saw him as crazy. He’s always thinking about the next new idea, and whether he dares to enter early".

Following eight years spent in the United States, where he attended the University of Stanford prior to Pennsylvania, Salathé joined EPFL in the summer of 2015 and set up its digital epidemiology laboratory. At his new office within Geneva’s Biotech Campus, his reserve has been replaced by an American enthusiasm for his research field. "People love talking about their health concerns on Facebook and Twitter, making it an inexhaustible supply of information for scientists. Another example is the ability to localise mobile phones, which helps us to track population movements during epidemics. These new data flows are rapid, but above all global. Hundreds of millions of people who do not have access to traditional health systems now have a smart phone".

Hashtag swine flu

One of Salathé’s latest pieces of research uses Twitter to analyse the secondary effects of HIV treatment. He has also worked on the effects of pro- and anti-vaccination messages during the swine flu outbreak. "The idea of using digital tools to improve health has only entered its primary phase. In the long term, care will be fundamentally changed, becoming more intelligent and more efficacious". Salathé is not one to hesitate when it comes to experimenting with these new tools personally. He shows off his smart watch with its fluorescent orange strap. "It measures the number of steps I take during the day, the number of calories that I burn. I realised that this would influence my behaviour. And it’s evident on days when I haven’t been very physically active: just before going to bed, I start running up and down the stairs like a maniac!"

Salathé will now move on to his project entitled PlantVillage, which is designed to help farmers diagnose plant illnesses by sharing and commenting on photographs posted online. When he joined EPFL he also brought with him an overflowing optimism for mass online open courses, or MOOCs. He is the father of two children of three and six years and lives near Morges, where he feels at home well off the beaten path. His peers also describe his profile as ‘atypical’. He is the son of a police officer and an office worker and chose to begin his studies in the field of biology at the University of Basel by using a process of "elimination". "Everything else seemed boring. I was an anxious teenager, and nature was one of the few places where I could find calm". He eventually found the topic to be "incredibly inspiring" before soon discovering a second area of interest: web programming.

Painter, programmer and biologist

Salathé left university and set up an online sales start-up before returning to study: and all the while he was working as a programmer. "At the end of the 1990s, everybody was an autodidact! This experience me a mental freedom which continues to guide my work today". He has since launched other Internet projects, and has just published a manual entitled Nature in Code, which links programming and biology. "Marcel hopes to have an impact", says his former colleague Read. "To do this, he is ready to carry out projects outside of his academic position, by launching a company or an app". He’s an ambitious person then? "Yes, but in a nice way".

Salathé had the opportunity to conduct new experiments during his doctoral studies at ETH Zurich in the 2000s. According to his supervisor Sebastian Bonhoeffer, Salathé stood out thanks to his "exceptional" ability to concentrate and to having published a dozen articles. He put 1,000 of his paintings up for sale on the Internet, setting the price himself as a function of demand. Each canvas has a number between one and 1,000, and all are painted using the same template. This idea was well-received particularly by the media in a number of countries. "Marcel has always had a refined sense of what works and what doesn’t in the digital world", says Bonhoeffer. "That’s why he’s been on television to debate what is and what isn’t art!"

Exiting the comfort zone

During the same period, Salathé played with a rock group from Basel called Phébus. The group has been relatively successful, having signed with the British record label EMI, and even having opened for Lenny Kravitz. "It was a funny experience", he laughs, as he is now more interested in classical music despite continuing to write his own songs. "Today, I am mainly trying to spend every minute of my free time with my family. And this summer, I will try to go trekking. I am also always looking for someone who would like to accompany me on a journey across Switzerland. For anyone who is interested!"

So he wears the caps of scientist, entrepreneur, author and musician. Can he manage them all? "I envy those scientists who spend all of their energy on a single pursuit. Being active in a number of different research fields sometimes leads you to think that you lack depth in a number of them. But given that modern science is interdisciplinary, becoming involved in areas outside of one’s comfort zone is also an asset. After all, why choose one approach over another?"

Sophie Gaitzsch is a journalist based in Geneva.

A multi-talent 40-year-old

Marcel Salathé is a biology professor at EPFL. He studied at the University of Basel, holds a PhD from ETH Zurich and conducted post-doctoral research at the University of Stanford before being appointed assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. He is an expert in digital epidemiology, has launched his own websites and apps (Netzfaktor, PlantVillage), played in a rock group, and sold 800 paintings on the Internet. He is married and the father of two children.