How bioinformatics led one scientist home to Lithuania

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Juozas Gordevičius says that Lithuania has a large pool of scientific talent.Credit: Asta Balčiūnaitė-Gordevičienė

In May, Lithuania marks 20 years of European Union membership. The Baltic country is keen to develop its global presence in the life-science and biotechnology sectors by retaining home-grown talent, persuading scientists working abroad to return to the country, and attracting researchers from other nations. Nature spoke to three scientists who have chosen to develop their careers in Lithuania. Here, Nature talks to Juozas Gordevičius, founder of Vugene, a bioinformatics data-science company in Vilnius.

I was born nine years before Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. I was part of the first generation that did not have compulsory Russian lessons at school. In 2004 — the year that Lithuania joined the European Union — I undertook a master’s degree in computer science at the Free University of Bozen–Bolzano in Italy, and stayed there for my PhD, during which I worked for the former online-news-aggregation company Thoora. The news service worked out the most important events in a given time period, and the mathematics and algorithms that it used turned out to be very relevant in bioinformatics.

One evening, I was out drinking beer with some other Lithuanians in Toronto, Canada, where Thoora was based. One of them was Arturas Petronis at the University of Toronto, who studies genetics. I explained that I was really into computer science, but that I didn’t want to work for Google or the like. Instead, I wanted to do something that contributes to human health (my older brother and sister are both physicians). He said, try bioinformatics, it’s the future.

My first foray into health was in 2011, as a visiting postdoc working with Petronis at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada’s largest mental-health teaching hospital. I worked there as a biological data-science consultant and travelled back and forth between Canada and Lithuania for years because that year I was also appointed as a bioinformatics researcher at Vilnius University’s Institute of Mathematics and Informatics. I was literally working night and day.

In 2019, I joined the Van Andel Institute, an independent biomedical research institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a bioinformatics scientist. I realized that the work of a bioinformatician is very limited in academia. Universities have lots of people who do the experiments and typically hire only one bioinformatician. You have to do everything in the lab: run the servers that do the computation, manage the data and write the code. Every project becomes very lengthy. It can take a year or two to arrive at a result that is publishable. It’s interesting in the beginning, but after a while, you feel lonely. I thought that if I had a team of people working with me, and I could optimize these processes, it would be much faster.

So, I started a company in Grand Rapids in 2021 to do just that. I called it Vugene.

Having a base in the United States made it possible for the institutes that I was working with to have a contract with Vugene. I certainly didn’t have to explain where Lithuania is — it was a gate opener.

By this time, the COVID-19 pandemic had hit and I had decided to return to Lithuania with my wife to build the company there. At first, I was doing everything alone.

Vugene in Lithuania is based at the Sunrise Valley Science and Technology Park in Vilnius, close to the University’s Life Sciences Center, with a second office in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city. The company offers bioinformatics data science as a service, specializing in biomedical research, bioinformatics, machine learning and software engineering.

Our clients include research laboratories looking at the origins, causes, treatments and diagnostics of various complex disorders, such as cancers or neurodegenerative diseases. Vugene manages large data sets, performs quality control, processes raw data and does statistical analysis.

It has always been my dream to do something that could be used in medical practice. Vugene is concentrating on early diagnostics. The company works a lot in the neurodegeneration field, mostly sequencing epigenomic data sets. Currently, 30 projects are running in parallel.

The first hire was a big step. I am very lucky with the people who joined me. Milda Milčiūtė, then a third-year genetics student at Vilnius, came first, in 2021. I became her supervisor for her dissertation and we worked together on her thesis on the expression of endogenous retroviruses in Parkinson’s disease. She worked part-time for Vugene, programming and building models. She’s now doing her master’s while working here.

Working at a company while studying happens in Lithuania a lot. I’ve taken on four students — three undergraduates and one doing a PhD. This is in addition to two postdocs, and a chief executive and a designer.

I think the biotech and life-sciences community in Lithuania is special. We have the right ingredients: a long-standing history in the life sciences; very good infrastructure in terms of computer science and the Internet; and a significant pool of talent owing to the high quality of education. Students going into these fields are the highest achievers. They have the desire to do their best, and to go and see the world as previous generations did. We are also a small country, it’s easy to get what you need, and the government is supportive. Now, for us as bioinformaticians, the task is to put all of this together.

Outside work, life is good here — we have fast Internet, free education and good health care as standard. On top of that, many people have a strong desire to do good things. The country is changing very quickly and for the better, so it feels great to be here.

Sailing has always been very important to me, and it’s very popular in Lithuania. It’s a good antidote to my work. In a race, I have to concentrate and stay alert for an extended period of time under extreme physical stress — it takes 100% of my mental capacity, there’s no time for anything else.

Jacqui Thornton’s travel and accommodation were provided by Go Vilnius, a tourism and development agency.

This article is part of Nature Spotlight: Lithuania, an editorially independent supplement. Advertisers have no influence over the content.

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