Being a Female in Bioinformatics
Hours: 40-50 per week
Starting salary: £27,000 per year
Definition: Bioinformatics is the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. Bioinformatics tools aid in the comparison of genetic and genomic data and more generally in the understanding of evolutionary aspects of molecular biology.
According to the National Science Foundation, women comprise 43% of the U.S. workforce for scientists and engineers under 75 years old.
According to UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.
What's it like being a female in bioinformatics?
Helen is a scientist who lives in Cambridge. She is interested in all kinds of science and also sharing her work! She has a 'sciencey' kid, and a 'sciencey' husband so is part of a science team at home and at work. She has an allotment and at weekends you can find her digging and planting things.
Job title: Head of the Molecular Archives, Bioinformatics
Current employer: The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)
Hours: 39 hours per week on average
How long have you been practising in this field? 20 years.
Where are you based for work or which regions do you cover?
I work at Hinxton in Cambridgeshire and my work is global.
In your current role, what do you spend your time doing??
Looking after data for big biology projects. At the moment we are working with data from humans about genetic disease risk that runs in families and working out what our genes do, so that we can understand how humans work and develop. These projects provide us with the knowledge to develop new drugs or tell us who to screen for diseases. Lots of disease screening is based on age and not genetics so there is a huge impact for human health.
What does a typical day look like?
I commute 4 days a week from Cambridge to Hinxton by car. On Fridays I work at home so I can take my daughter to school, and I either write documents or do web conferences on Fridays. I start work between 8-8.30am, I read my email, work with a team of around 90 people who work on lots of different areas of biology, from microbes to people. We build systems for people to access data - a bit like wikipedia or google but for scientific data, so we spend time looking at the data and working with scientists to help make the systems better. Most days I will meet with members of my group, and as we are growing, I am also doing a lot of interviewing to fill these new jobs.
I travel around twice a month to present our work, review funding applications or to collaborate with scientists in other countries. Most days, I speak to people we work with on Skype to plan our work. I may also do some work with schools, students, or our communications team, to design experiments that can be done in schools, which happens a couple of times a year.
Are there any specific qualifications you are required to have in your field?
Higher degree in Genetics, and experience in data analysis. In particular, I studied sleep-wake cycles in mutant flies. You might have heard about this as a Nobel prize was awarded on this subject. One of the Nobel prize winners did some work with my PhD supervisor.
What did your career journey look like - how did you get to where you are today?
I did a degree in Biology, then I worked in a lab, then a PhD for three years and a couple of research posts looking at the ends of human chromosomes - called telomeres. After that, I worked looking for a human disease gene, which was later found for a disease called Primary Pulmonary Hypertensiom. I knew I didn't want to work in a lab as after 10 years I had done enough experiments (!) and I liked the data parts such as doing analysis, so I came to EBI to work on a big database with DNA sequences for pretty much all known sequences.
This means for almost every species we have looked at the DNA, and started to understand what that means. The information encoded in the DNA is stored in databases and we use it to understand how organisms work and are related to each other. I have moved around a bit inside EBI, working with different types of data, some new technologies which allowed us to get more data than ever before and getting to work with different groups of scientists, for example on flies and plants, but I still work with big databases.
Was there anything you liked doing at school that helped you get to this career?
I have always loved all different types of science and I was interested in how things work. Now I get to work with experts from many fields and I continue to be interested in different kinds of biology. I also enjoyed writing and I do a lot of writing in my job now.
What did you want to be as a child when you 'grew up'?
I wanted to be lots of different things, I don't remember ever wanting to be a scientist though!
What were your favourite subjects at school?
Science and English.
Can you remember your parents or teachers wanting or encouraging you to go into a specific career when you 'grew up'?
My parents were very encouraging and never expressed an opinion on what I wanted to do. I think they'd have really liked me to be a doctor, but I wasn't particularly interested in medicine.
What do you think are attitudes towards and expectations of women in your profession?
There used to be a general expectation that people working with data or computers would be male and I was quite often the only woman in the room in the early days of working in bioinformatics. This has changed and we now have a lot of women computer scientists and my working life is with a diverse group of people, from many countries.
Has anyone ever been surprised when you told them that you were in this role?
Yes. I have heard 'you don't look like a scientist' several times. I've also been asked to meet the person in charge, the person having assumed I am someone from the admin team. This has changed though and hasn’t happened in the last few years.
What are the challenges of being in your field?
The benefits are working with smart people on things that affect human health and understanding how things work. The challenges are that the job changes all the time, but this is a good thing as it can also keep things interesting.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Working with people from all over the world on interesting problems. It's never boring and I always learn new things. I don’t like to do the same thing all the time and my job is very varied which suits me.
What are 3 things you have to like to do your job?
Working in a team
What advice would you give to young girls who are aspiring to be in your role, or who maybe haven't even considered it as a career?
Scientific research in general is a great career, finding out something for the first time is incredibly exciting. Doing some work experience in a research lab is a good way to find out if you like it and to see how it works. Normally some practical skills are needed for the first phase of your career, so being practically minded helps.
A drawing of Helen from a student at a school event.