"How many atoms in a human cell? We are talking about big numbers"

Interview with Bert Müller, SNSF National Research Council delegate for NRP 75.

You have recently been elected delegate of the SNSF National Research Council for NRP 75. What are your expectations of NRP 75?

Big data is becoming increasingly common, including in medical research and patient treatment. Often, doctors are no longer able to process this data manually and have to rely on automatic algorithms. It is a matter of determining where the results of the NRP project can be put to use for the benefit of patients.

What would we not have without NRP 75?

As a physics student, I learned to differentiate between experimental and theoretical physics. Since then, 'in silico' experiments have become firmly established. For example, as part of NRP 75, I have seen how epileptic seizures and secondary brain injuries can be precisely predicted without using traditional experiments or complex theories. Without NRP 75, research of this kind would be a rarer occurrence.

Can you explain what you think big data means?

I ask students how many atoms there are in a biological cell, or how many atoms make up a person. Comparisons are difficult: there are around 1000 times more atoms in a single cell than there are stars in the Milky Way, and approximately the same number of cells in a person. We are talking about big numbers.

For medical data that is collected daily by hospitals' radiology departments, ethical and security issues also play a key role.

What do you expect the most significant implications to be? What is just hot air?

It is hard to predict. I always like surprises. If you tackle questions and challenges seriously, as is happening in NRP 75, then nothing is just hot air.

How would you describe Switzerland's position when it comes to big data research? How important is NRP 75?

Switzerland definitely has a strong position on an international level. However, the challenges are huge and dynamic. We see it every day as we discover the growing potential of storage media. In-depth research is therefore crucial. NRP 75 provides substantial support to the associated network of leading research institutions in Switzerland.​

Bert Müller

Bert Müller is the Thomas Straumann Professor of Materials Science in Medicine at the University of Basel, and a Privatdozent (Lecturer) in the Physics department of ETH Zurich. He has also been the delegate of the SNSF National Research Council for NRP 75 since the beginning of 2021.