Northern California Science Writers Association

Spring dinner with Atul Butte

  • Thursday, May 17, 2012
  • 6:30 PM - 10:00 PM
  • Mijita Cocina Mexicana, San Francisco


  • Special price for members
  • Non-member ticket
  • Student ticket

The cost is $26 members/$20 students/$32 non-members.
Registration is closed

Cheap Data!

How Medical Researchers are Striking Gold by Mining Public Databases and Electronic Medical Records

If you’ve known any 12-year-olds lately, you understand that chemistry sets just aren’t cool anymore. The way young geeks show their savvy these days is by hitting the Internet. The same goes for young scientists.

On May 17, Stanford associate professor and medical-systems chief Atul Butte, MD, PhD, will explain how science is being transformed by the data revolution. Butte estimates that in the single year of 2013 human beings will generate 4 zetabytes of data – that’s 4 times 10 followed by 21 little zeroes. Most of that data will just sit there, serenely gathering dust.

But, Butte says, these vast inventories hold a wealth of information begging to be set free. And he's got the chops to prove it. Butte was an early adopter in the push to extract knowledge from the huge mines of experimental data collecting in public repositories and clinical information accumulating in electronic medical records. His lab, which numbers between 10 and 25 people depending on how many businesses he has spun off or PhDs he’s graduated in a particular year, is putting out a new scientific paper every 16 days..

Among just this year’s crop of results the Butte team has published in lofty journals:

- The finding that for almost any clinical manifestation you can think of, women report experiencing more pain than men do (from mining electronic medical records);

- The equivalent of a for medical molecules that successfully paired known, off-patent drugs with disease indications for which these drugs had never been even considered;

- The discovery, derived from combing through inventories of genomic data gathering dust in hugely publicly accessible databases, of a gene that almost certainly plays a causal role in type 2 diabetes despite this gene’s having never before been looked at for such a connection.

Butte not only considers all these data sources an integral part of his lab, but even (as he puts it) “outsources the three double-blind mice”: He uses the Internet to find professionals that can perform proof-of-principle mouse studies fast and cheap.

A 12-year-old is armed with all the skills and tools necessary to do what Butte does, he says. In fact, he’s got high-school kids working in his lab doing it. Maybe we should all learn how, too.


6:30 pm – No-host happy hour
7:30 pm – Dinner
8:30 pm – Speaker


Mijita Cocina Mexicana
1 Ferry Building, #44
San Francisco, Ca.

Located on the water side of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, overlooking the bay - only one block from BART and Muni stops.

Mijita is a Cocina Mexicana with a Bay Area flavor. James Beard award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins cooks from her roots using local, seasonal ingredients.

Mushroom empanada appetizers will be followed by a buffet offering a medley of vegetarian and meat tacos.

The cost is $26 members/$20 students/$32 non-members.
There is a full-service (no-host) bar.

Validated parking is available at the Washington Embarcadero lot across from the Ferry Building. For more parking information, visit this map.

For those interested in CARPOOLING, Corinna Wu has generously offered to coordinate rides. If you need a ride or can offer a ride to another NCSWA'an, contact Corinna at, and she will connect ride seekers to ride providers.

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