OmicsXchange episode 10: letter from the 8th Plenary Committee Chair — an interview with Meg Doerr

21 Sep 2020

Today on the podcast we hear from Meg Doerr, a principal scientist in Data Governance and Ethics at Sage Bionetworks. Meg is the Programme Committee Chair for the upcoming GA4GH 8th Plenary meeting, which will take place on September 29 and 30. It will be the first fully virtual meeting, and we are delighted to have had Meg’s guidance in developing the programme.

Angela Page: Welcome to the OmicsXchange, I’m Angela Page. Today on the podcast I’m speaking with Meg Doerr, a Principal Scientist in Data Governance and Ethics at Sage Bionetworks. Meg is the Programme Committee Chair for the upcoming GA4GH 8th Plenary meeting, which will take place on September 29 and 30. It will be our first fully virtual meeting and we are delighted to have had Meg’s guidance in developing the programme. Meg has been active in the GA4GH Community since 2014 when she joined the Regulatory and Ethics Work Stream, and led  the development of the GA4GH Mobile Health Consent Inventory. Welcome, Meg! I’m so happy to speak with you today!

Meg Doerr: Angela, it’s really exciting to be here.

Angela Page: So Meg, you have a really interesting background and I love for folks to hear how different members of our community found themselves here. Can you tell our listeners a bit about your journey?

Meg Doerr: I started my professional career as a botanist then, I was a middle school and high school science teacher for 10 years. I then attended graduate school and became a clinical genetic counselor. I practiced at the Cleveland Clinic, and while at the Cleveland Clinic, I became the clinical lead for a health IT project. That health IT project is how I got involved with the Global Alliance. And as that health IT project went on to be commercialized, I had been focusing on the ethical and legal research issues associated with health information technology. From there, I transitioned to Sage Bionetworks, where I’m a principal scientist in data governance and ethics. So I got involved in the global alliance in early 2014, and once I got my foot in to the mix, I just got pulled right in, I mean the opportunities to collaborate with so  many of the world’s leading researchers, and then to work on projects that were truly meaningful to me meaningful to not only my work but also to my personal mission to make personalized health a global reality.

Angela Page: That’s such a unique path to where you are today—I love it. I know you’re leading this year’s Plenary Programme Committee, and helping to organize our first virtual plenary meeting. I’m curious what opportunities does GA4GH 8th Plenary present as a fully virtual meeting that past, in-person meetings may not have had?

Meg Doerr: Every meeting is virtual right now, and that can be a challenge for people. But what’s exciting for the particular context of the Global Alliance is that the virtual platform allows us to be a truly global meeting. We’re able to be more inclusive, bring in new voices, it makes the program accessible—even to students. So we’re really excited actually, by this opportunity to bring more people to the table.

Angela Page: This global inclusion has always been important to the GA4GH mission, but, this year in particular, it really is the focus of this meeting . What are the main themes for the 8th Plenary meeting, and what was the reasoning for focusing on these topics for this meeting?

Meg Doerr: So it’s all in the name. Right? The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health says it all with the focus of the meeting, as always, is global collaboration to accelerate genomics research. So we’re really looking for that multinational, all the way around the globe, collaboration spirit to really accelerate our understanding of human health. And certainly it’s never been more important; the global pandemic has really thrown into belief the importance of global cooperation in biomedical research. So, this plenary has two main themes. First, the importance of diversity in genomic data—so the why of inclusive datasets. Why do we need inclusive data sets to accelerate genomic research? The second theme is uniting the ethical and technical solutions to harness the power of data. So as genomic data sets diversify, what approaches help maximize scientific discovery while upholding our ethical obligation to the data contributors.

Angela Page: How has the program committee organized the agenda to support the themes of the meeting? And why did you decide to do it this way?

Meg Doerr: We’ve organized the meeting to have two sessions that are timezone friendly for the eastern hemisphere, and two sessions that are timezone friendly for the Western Hemisphere. As a global organization, we wanted to maximize global participation. It’s important to note that all of the sessions are going to be available online after the meeting. But we wanted to have a live experience in each of the hemispheres to really encourage participation of our global audience. On the first day of the meeting, we’re going to be exploring our thematic mandates, the diversity of genomic datasets and the importance of that and then the ethical technical solutions. On the second day of the meeting, we’re going to dig into the “How to”—so really looking at some example projects that are applying these principles in action around the world. We’re going to have a series of different types of sessions first starting out with keynotes and panel discussions that set up the thematic structure of our meeting. And then live q&a is with our keynote, attendees, and panelists. Moving on to breakout sessions and working meetings. And then there’s breakout sessions and working meetings where some of the real collaboration will happen, and you’ll get to really see the Global Alliance work in progress. And so I would really encourage not only attending the keynotes and the panel discussions, which sort of frames it up for you, but getting into the weeds, attending those breakout sessions, getting into those working meetings, so you can join in all of the good work that we’re doing.

Angela Page: So the virtual format is not necessarily what we are used to from past GA4GH meetings, and it certainly has some unique limitations and challenges. How can plenary attendees get the most value out of the meeting?

Meg Doerr: To get the most out of a virtual meeting, it can be a little bit of a challenge. So I think it’s important to ground yourself in sort of the framing of the meeting so you understand the context, which is why the keynotes and panels and live q&a are really important. But as you join breakout sessions and working meetings, you’re going to come in contact with different people who you’d like to collaborate with—who you have more questions for. Take the time to schedule one-on-one meetings with those attendees. And take time to go to the poster and networking sessions. Make sure that you use our Slack channel, for example, so that you can discuss in real time some of the themes or ideas that you’re coming up with. And of course, don’t worry about reaching out to people. It’s really, I would say, one of the things that I love best about the Global Alliance is how willing everyone is to collaborate. I mean, it really is an alliance. So don’t hesitate to just jump in with both feet.

Angela Page: That’s great advice, Meg. To our listeners—don’t forget to register for the plenary on our event website, which is linked in the transcript of this podcast and on the events page of the GA4GH website, The meeting is completely free and open to the public. We really want to encourage you to join our community and offer your ideas to improve genomic and related health data sharing.

Meg Doerr: One of the really cool things about the Alliance for me is that we’ve got super hardcore science is happening, standards are being developed, and you know, these really, really intense conversations are happening deep in the weeds. And equally at the same time, those conversations are happening on the ethics side. So it’s not just a meeting for genomic scientists, it’s a meeting for the legal and ethical community, people who are really interested in the implications of genomic science, for global health and for global privacy, for that matter. So the Alliance is a little unique in that way—they marry the ethical components of research directly with the deep science components of it.

Angela Page: Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Meg.

Meg Doerr: Thank you so much for having me on the podcast today. It was really a delight.

Thank you for listening to the OmicsXchange—a podcast of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health. The OmicsXchange podcast is produced by Stephanie Li and Caity Forgey, with music created by Rishi Nag. GA4GH is the international standards org for genomics, aimed at accelerating human health through data sharing. I’m Angela Page and this is the OmicsXchange.

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