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Bringing Programmability to Experimental Biology

For decades, biologists have relied on written descriptions of protocols to guide their experiments in the laboratory. However, with the emergence of microfluidic "lab-on-a-chip" systems, many of today's experiments are carried out by a computer rather than by a human. In order to leverage the power of these technologies, protocols will need to be written in a standard language that machines can understand.

We are developing a language, called BioCoder, that formally expresses the steps needed to carry out a biology protocol. We have used BioCoder to execute real protocols on diverse microfluidic chips, as well as to direct the actions of experimental biologists in the laboratory. Our vision is to change the way that experimental methods are communicated: rather than publishing a written account of the protocols used, researchers will simply publish the code.

Bill Thies is a researcher at Microsoft Research India, where he is a member of the Technologies for Emerging Markets Group. His research focuses on creating appropriate information and communication technologies to promote socio-economic development, as well as the description and automation of biology protocols on platforms such as microfluidic chips. Bill received all of his degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed his Ph.D. in computer science in 2009. His prior research focused on programming languages and compilers; his Ph.D. thesis was the recipient of the 2009 ACM SIGPLAN Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award.