Photo:

Cordelia Langford

Excited about the live chat session tomorrow!

Favourite Thing: I love using technology to solve biological problems like helping to find out what genes cause diseases like cancer, obesity and arthritis.

My CV

School:

A’ levels at Hills Road Sixth Form College (Cambridge) 1984-1985

University:

HNC and BSc at Anglia Ruskin (Cambridge), 1991-1996, PhD at Sanger with Open University, 2003. I studied part-time, while working as a research assistant in labs.

Work History:

I’ve worked at Sanger for 17 yrs. Previously, I worked at the Babraham Institute and Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge. Early in my career, I took a year out and worked in a hotel in Austria and learned to ski.

Department:

DNA Pipelines – multi-skilled teams running a series of laboratory protocols to generate genome sequence data.

Area of Research:

I’m a senior operations manager, responsible for planning and delivering multiple complex scientific projects through the DNA Pipelines teams.

Find out more:

Me and my work

I’m a senior scientific operations manager, and I lead teams of people who use machines to sequence DNA to help analyse genomes.

I trained as a researcher then took a career path into scientific management. I plan the work and direct teams of people using high-tech equipment and powerful computers to sequence DNA and understand genomes. That way, I help Sanger researchers find answers to their experimental questions, like what is the genetic makeup of a patient with diabetes. 

My Typical Day

Coffee, email, troubleshoot problems, coffee, meetings, email, review reports, check in with the team, email.

First, I get a coffee, then check emails and deal with anything urgent before planning my day. I manage several teams working on multiple projects so I’m mostly out and about catching up with staff and researchers throughout the day. I really enjoy this part of my job! I’ll get unplanned visits from team leaders to discuss problems, like a chemical kit that hasn’t worked or equipment that’s broken down and we need to make quick decisions on how to deal with it. There are organised meetings too: there might be a one-to-one with a member of staff to discuss their work and their career aspirations, or it might be a board-room meeting with an external company to discuss how we can manage our strategic relationship. I typically grab lunch on the go but will settle down in my office to read a report on the performance of our teams and quality of their work – if there are any issues, I’ll feed back to the teams and we’ll discuss how to improve and the best way forwards. If there’s time, I’ll visit the labs in the afternoon to congratulate staff when things have gone well or get a heads-up on any issues that need resolving. At the end of the day I review what I’ve done. I have to be flexible with constantly changing priorities and might not have achieved everything I set out to….. but I always enjoy myself and usually leave with a great sense of satisfaction.

Genome sequencing and my research

I manage the teams that run all the genome sequencing machines.

A genome is a series of chemical letters or bases (A, T, G and C) encoded in DNA containing the instructions for an organism to develop and function. By sequencing a genome we decode the bases and can identify abnormalities or mutations which might lead to the development of disease. DNA itself is a long molecule which is shrink-wrapped into cells in our bodies. To sequence a genome, we first have to prepare the DNA, which might have been extracted from a patient’s blood. The DNA is treated with chemicals to unravel the molecular structure. We then use sequencing machines to read the sequence of bases and compare them to a normal reference using computers.

In the 90’s, I worked on the Human Genome Project. With the “Sanger Sequencing” technology of the day, it took us 10 years to sequence a single human genome. With new technology, we can now sequence a human genome in 2 weeks! We have so much equipment at Sanger that we could actually sequence 184 human genomes in 2 weeks if we needed to. As it happens, we don’t just work with human genomes, we also sequence mouse, fish, bacteria, viruses, and the organism which causes malaria.

We spend quite a lot of time checking the quality of the sequence so that the researchers know they are analysing reliable data. Due to the number of projects we work on, there might be thousands of samples passing through our labs in any one week, and it’s imperative that the samples are not mixed up. For that reason, each sample is uniquely identified using bar codes and bar code readers are connected to a tracking database. All of the sequence we produce is uploaded onto the world wide web so that it’s freely available for all researchers to help advance science rapidly.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Energetic. Humerous. Rebel.

What music do you have on your iPod?

Thumping Trance. Massive Attack, Left Field, Faithless, The Clash, Groove Armada.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Free-riding my snowboard in the Alps.

What do you like to do away from work?

I enjoy running and training for races. I’m passionate about our wildlife and I track otters in local rivers for the Wildlife Trust. I spend a lot of time out walking our dog, and like to combine it with meeting friends, drinking tea and eating cake!

What did you want to be after you left school?

A forensic pathologist. When I was very young I wanted to be an air hostess until I heard it involves clearing up vomit.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, I got into quite big trouble at two different schools for breaking the rules and failing to do my homework.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Helped staff in my team to develop their own careers in science.

Tell us a joke.

What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot.