Prime Minister's Prize for Science: Terry Speed

The statistician taming the unruly, noisy static that obscures the useful signals in complex data.

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Terry Speed: "I think of myself as a lion tamer."
Ray Strange / Newspix

"I think of myself as a lion tamer,” says Terry Speed. The lion he is referring to is the unruly, noisy static that obscures the useful signals hidden in complex data. For the past decade and a half, Speed has been taming cancer genomics data at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. “Cancer cells have genomes that are messed up in incredibly complicated ways,” he says. But sift through the mess and important patterns can emerge, revealing information such as whether a person’s cancer is malignant and requires surgery.

In a career spanning close to five decades, Speed has tamed statistical signals in many diverse areas, from serving as an expert witness on DNA fingerprint evidence in the O.J. Simpson case to helping WA gem miners to understand the size distribution of Argyle diamonds.

But it was a desire to save lives that was always in Speed’s heart. As an undergraduate in the 1960s, he had started out studying medicine before realising that his strengths lie more in marshalling numbers than mastering a microscope or scalpel, prompting a switch to maths and statistics. But as the genomics era dawned, these two worlds began to collide. Initially researchers studying cancer might investigate one or a handful of genes. Now they study the signals from thousands of genes; and can, without help from people like Speed, drown in the data.

Will we ever “solve” the genetic complexities of cancer using statistics? Speed isn’t so sure. “I’m a believer that things just get more and more complicated the deeper you look,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find interesting things – new cancer treatments – along the way.”

His latest project is determining the prognosis of a patient’s thyroid cancer based on its gene profile. “Ultimately it can help lead to the right treatment and hopefully a cure,” he says.

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