Prof Des Higgins – the embodiment of humility, warmth and human excellence

Written by: Eadaoin McKiernan
Written on: Thursday, 17 November, 2022

A few of the SBI group who gathered to celebrate Des Higgins' career at the Donnybrook Gastropub, November 2022 (l to r: Colm Ryan, Des Higgins, Walter Kolch, Eadaoin McKiernan)

Last Friday 11th November 2022, SBI team members met our long-standing colleague and friend Prof Des Higgins for lunch in Donnybrook. It was our first time seeing Des since August 2022 when he retired from his 40 year+ academic career, the last 20 years of which were spent at UCD as Professor of Bioinformatics in the UCD School of Medicine, with research activities at both Systems Biology Ireland and UCD Conway Institute. We were there to celebrate those incredibly successful years and to wish him well on the road ahead……..with Des it is sure to be a road full of adventures. On walking back to UCD I couldn’t help but smile thinking not only of the memories we all share, but at the man himself. He always was and always will be (despite his international standing in the field and his many accolades) the most grounded and warm if not somewhat unconventional person I know. In the academic world where egos often run amok, Des in his humility is truly rare.

Prof. Higgins receives his gift of a Bird Cherry Tree to be planted in Herbert Park. 

At the risk of embarrassing Des one more time, I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Des’s outstanding achievements. In 1988, Des developed a computer programme “Clustal” that took sequences of genetic information and quickly compared them to see what they have in common or how they differ. Previously, researchers had completed this tedious and time-consuming task by hand. With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the subsequent race to sequence the genomes of various other species – the desire for biologists to understand this genetic information became paramount. Clustal was instrumental in this endeavour. The value of the software was apparent with scientists, in both industry and academia, using it to address some of society's biggest challenges. In the years since, Clustal has become a global standard, with Des and his colleagues developing more powerful versions of the free user-friendly programme. From citations, we see Clustal has been used in studies on HIV, swine flu and cancer treatment.  The impact has been felt in industry, with Clustal referenced by thousands of patents issued to companies working in many areas such as controlling disease, improving plant yield and the production of biofuels. Clustal has been made available on most operating systems and is delivered as a service over the internet, accessible via large servers like those at the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Another well-known method developed by Des and colleagues in 2000 “T-coffee” allowed for faster and more accurate multiple sequence alignment. In 2014, Des was named on Thomson Reuters’ list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.

Later that year, one of Des's papers on Clustal was included in Nature's Top 10 Most Highly Cited Research Publications of All Time. He had another in the Top 30. Des was quickly recognised as Ireland's most highly cited scientist and was placed among the most highly cited scientists in the world. The following year, he was a recipient of the Motoo Kimura Award for his advancements in evolutionary biology. Recognising the excellence of Des's work and his contribution to the bioinformatics field, awarded Des the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. At the time, the founder and president of said: "The CLUSTAL series are among the very first bioinformatics tools used by any student and are fundamental to the field."


Prof. Des Higgins, November 2022

Since the establishment of SBI in 2009. Des has lent his expertise to many of the Centre’s 170+ programmes and projects. He played a pivotal role in the establishment of ELIXIR Ireland and many of the 24+ PhD students he supervised in his academic career are now the up-and-coming leaders in the bioinformatics field and are among SBI’s strongest collaborators.

Des’s smiling eyes and quick wit are already sorely missed at SBI, though we can still enjoy his humour and wisdom via twitter updates on his many bird-watching escapades. At the end of our lunch last Friday, SBI presented Des with a wild cherry tree, or Prunus Avium, which is to be planted in Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, along the Dodder Walk, a well-loved area for bird watchers. It is our hope that we will have many opportunities to visit with Des in future, both on and off campus. He is a keen Jazz guitarists and perhaps one day soon we’ll hear him play.

I came across the quote below recently and it immediately brought Des to mind, which I will leave you with:

“We define Humility as a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”