I am not a bioinformatician – or particularly computer-savvy – but have been amazed at what I have learned and achieved
Tell us about your background and journey to your current role
After studying for a degree in Biochemistry at the University of St Andrews, I stayed on to complete a PhD in Genetics. I obtained my first post-doc position at Roslin Institute in 1996 working in the field of avian genomics and have been there ever since! I worked as a post-doc/senior post-doc for many years before being lucky enough to obtain a Career Track Fellowship in 2017. I now lead my own team in Avian Genomics, with a particular interest in the host response to avian viral infections. I also currently work as part of the Centre for Tropical Livestock and Health (CTLGH) which is a virtual research centre based around collaboration between The Roslin Institute (RI), Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the International Livestock Research Institute in Africa (ILRI). I worked as a lab-based scientist for many years but now the majority of my work is data-driven.
Tell us about a typical day at work?
More and more time is devoted to the admin and management behind projects, leaving decreasing amounts of time to do the actual research analysis myself! So, this is where I find myself in a very lucky position with regards to the fantastic people I have working with me. They are the ones who deserve the real credit for the work they do. While I am busy writing grants, attending meetings, writing papers etc. they are the ones who carry out the analysis on the large datasets we produce. A couple of main areas I’m working on at the moment are (1) investigating genetic resistance to avian flu and (2) examining the genetics of indigenous African chickens.
Avian flu is a serious threat to not only the global poultry industry but also to human health, with the ever-present risk of zoonotic spread between species. I want to understand what genes/genetic variants make some birds resistant to highly pathogenic flu viruses while others are susceptible. We have examined differing resistance across various bird species and are also investigating resistance within chickens themselves.
Our research on local African birds forms part of my work within CTLGH. Indigenous birds tend to be more resilient to disease and are more able to cope with environmental stresses such as higher temperatures compared to Western commercial poultry. However they show lower production traits with regard to, for example, muscle growth and egg laying. Understanding the genetics of these birds will allow us to investigate the genes responsible for their beneficial features while also enabling us to see how we can increase productivity for African farmers.
What is your vision for data innovation and the Data Driven Innovation programme at the university?
It is becoming clear that being able to produce and analyse large amounts of ‘data’ is at the core of much of the research that currently goes on. The DDI programme is a fantastic initiative which will hopefully bring to the forefront, an area which in the past has perhaps been slightly ignored/under-appreciated. I would like to see increased infrastructure put in place to enable the storage and analysis of the vast amounts of data that are now being generated. I also see it as a great opportunity for training. Many people do not see themselves as data-scientists, but increasingly they find themselves requiring computer-based analytical skill sets. This is a chance for not only new students to learn valuable skills but also for existing researchers to develop new ways of working – I’m so excited about these new ways of working. Being able to liaise with industrial collaborators, students and members of the public to teach the importance of data driven technologies will be of huge benefit to future research/societal problems.
What are you particularly passionate about in your work?
I would like everyone to start thinking about the bigger picture and see the potential that can gained from looking at things on a larger scale. With current technologies, so much information can be obtained in a very short time-frame, and at ever-decreasing cost. So, in my particular field I would say, why look at a few genes you think might be involved in a particular trait when you can easily look at the genome-wide/population-wide/species-wide level – and obtain so much more information than you first imagined. I also want everyone to start realizing that they can do data analysis to some level. I am not a bioinformatician – or particularly computer-savvy person! – But have been amazed at what I have learned and what I have achieved over the years. I am very proud of current members of my team who have learnt how to carry out bioinformatic analyses starting with no previous knowledge.
Do you work with any interesting data sets, technologies or analysis techniques?
With regard to my work on avian flu, I was extremely lucky to obtain DNA samples from birds that managed to survive the devastating disease outbreaks that spread across North America and Mexico in recent years. Mortality was >99% but amazingly some chickens were found to survive. My industrial collaborators in the US had the foresight to collect samples from these survivor birds along with control samples. They approached me and explained what they had, asking if I thought these were interesting and should we investigate the genetics? My answer was – YES! We have carried out whole-genome sequencing, investigated variants within the sequences, undertaken genome-wide association studies and have now identified some very interesting genes which appear to be highly associated with resistance to flu. So….this is proving to be a very exciting project indeed.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls in data fields?
In the present time, I don’t believe there are now any actual barriers, but only imagined ones. I think how women see themselves and their perceived role/ability is still the real challenge (and I include myself in this). Historical stereotyping still has an impact on what many women believe they can do. To work in a data-driven environment probably does not seem particularly attractive to many people (and in particular to women), so I think more has to be done to highlight the potential in this field and how fun and exciting it can be. More and more research fields are reliant on generation and analysis of large data sets, so I think it will soon become an area that has a much wider spread and appeal.
What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to do what you’re doing?
Go for it! Aim for whatever subject fascinates you, and if it involves skills/technologies that you feel are currently beyond you, don’t be put off. There is such a network of available expertise and training now available, that you can learn how to do anything…. and remember, age, gender, experience are of no consequence.
Do you have a fun fact about yourself you’d like to share?
I collect smurfs, I (unwittingly) held a window open for burglars posing as workmen when I was at school and Richard Dreyfuss (actor) once bought me dessert!
Do you have a hero or heroine?
Bill Gates. The work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the opportunities they are trying to provide for people in a global context is truly inspiring. I was lucky enough to be part of an invited audience when he recently came to speak here at Easter Bush.