By: Alison Cranage, Science Writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
Cordelia’s love of science started early, as she visited her father at work in his research laboratory. “From a very young age I went into his lab – and I was intrigued by the science happening there. He was an electron microscopist and I was fascinated with the inner functioning of cells. That’s something that’s stayed with me.
“My mother was head of science at a senior school in Cambridge. Between them they fostered this interest in science. When I was 16 I had the opportunity of a holiday job at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. I realised I had a talent for technical work – everything started from there. I wanted to become qualified, but I didn’t follow the traditional route. All of my post A-level qualifications were done whilst I continued working. I joined the Sanger Centre as an undergraduate research assistant in 1994, when the Sanger was less than a year old, working on the human genome project.”
Since then, the science and the technology to deliver cutting edge genomic research have been constantly evolving. That first human genome sequence took 13 years to complete. Now, the Sanger Institute sequences the equivalent of a human genome every 24 minutes.
“I am so inspired by the mission of the Sanger Institute. Part of what drives me is wanting to move our science forwards in the delivery of what does truly feel like research that is changing the lives of people. Having an understanding of the Sanger’s ambitious scientific goals, and knowing everything that’s going on in terms of technical development, then being able to translate that into new pipelines and new platforms is very satisfying.
“And I get to work with some extraordinary, talented people.”
Cordelia now leads a team of 300 scientists and the delivery of all the scientific operations at the Sanger Institute. This includes all the data production pipelines – from the animal facility, to the production and maintenance of cells and tissues used in research, and all of the DNA and RNA sequencing facilities.
She described some of the support she’s had throughout her career.
“In the main it’s been training. Technical skills, but more importantly skills that you need to become a manager of people and operations. I still reflect on a training course I went on for presentation skills, very early on in my PhD. I still use those techniques for presentations today. I feel as though there has been a sustained investment in helping me to hone my skills and I feel like I’ve never stopped learning.”
Cordelia described one of the most exciting areas of her work at the moment – UK Biobank. The project is following the health and well-being of 500,000 volunteer participants, providing health information to researchers from around the world. She recently led the Institutes successful bid to sequence 50,000 whole genomes as part of the project.
“It’s the end point that’s the main excitement. It’s a mind blowing resource that’s been built up. The gathering of the information, the consent of the participants and the richness of the dataset – it’s really only recently sunk in how impactful this is around the world. It’s openly available for researchers to access. The fact that my teams are able to generate the icing on the cake with full genome sequence data to add to that is very rewarding.”
Cordelia was recognised in the collaboration category of the BioBeat award. Much of her work spans across different teams within the institute, as well as between institutes around the world. She also co-ordinates partnerships with commercial companies – those that supply the DNA sequencing machines and associated technologies, for example. Recently she brought together thought leaders, suppliers and partners in DNA sequencing for a unique meeting to describe the future strategy for genomic technology. The aim was to enable the research community to work together with technology suppliers to shape a road map for the future.
“I believe that revolutionary collaborative exchange – breaking the boundaries between researchers, innovators and suppliers – is key. It will enable us to deliver transformative science and tackle global challenges.” says Cordelia.
The BioBeat award celebrates women in science and bio-business. We discussed some of the issues that face women in science today.
“I feel as though I’ve experienced a lot of what is often spoken about as challenges faced by women. A perception of glass ceilings, of being treated differently. People have not always encouraged my growth, or supported positive outcomes in certain situations.
“I think some of those experiences, or unintentional comments, have made me feel inhibited at times, and perhaps hindered me. I’ve sometimes had a feeling of imposter syndrome, and I’ve realised it’s not all from within. Getting through that barrier is tough, psychologically. But when it’s not there it’s such an amazing and empowering feeling. I feel less inhibited now, more able to play to my strengths as a leader, and to be me.
“There is a gender imbalance in science, as elsewhere in society. I believe there is more work to do to change the perception that appointing women to senior positions is tokenism. Women should be truly and equally recognised for their skills and achievements and should have every opportunity to reach their potential.
“I want to be part of the solution, clearing the way for junior staff so they feel there aren’t so many ceilings to smash. My past experiences, and my leadership skills, can help me to do .”
“I’m delighted to be taking over the chair of the Athena SWAN working group here at the Sanger Institute from 2019. We are committed to advancing gender equality in terms of representation, progression and success for all.”
With such a broad level of experience, it’s interesting to hear what advice she’d give for young researchers.
“Something that has been a golden thread for me is that I’ve been really clear about what I think I can achieve. I’ve thought about how I might travel towards my career goals. I’ve always kept that in mind. I’ve been patient, gathered my experience and taken job opportunities.
“Something I advise people is to have an open mind about opportunities. Don’t always feel you have to climb the ladder. Sometimes a sideways move might actually be building experience and knowledge that may be a spring board to a more senior role, if that’s what people are after.
“A solid group of mentors is invaluable. And something I’ve learnt more recently is the importance of balancing work with life. I know that I’m much more effective if I have time clear to be able to think, to reflect on what’s important here at work, and make sure I focus on the priorities.”
Finally, we talked about winning the BioBeat award. “I was privileged to be approached and to be included among such an outstanding group of leaders -it’s so gratifying and I feel very proud.” Cordelia said.
She also acknowledged all of the staff in her teams. “They are hugely inspiring, with diverse experiences and views. Everyone comes together to work towards joint goals.”
Her teams remain at the forefront of genome science. They have embraced and developed new technologies – for example in sequencing RNA from single cells, to allow the discovery of its activities. They are also enabling the high throughput sequencing and analysis needed for so many of the research projects at Sanger.
The next big challenge for Cordelia’s teams is the Darwin Tree of Life Project, where the Institute will be sequencing all animal, plant, fungi and protozoan life in the UK – some 66,000 species. The project brings huge technical challenges, in sample collection, DNA extraction and preparation, sequencing new genomes and assembling them – and doing all that at scale. The project has captured her imagination.
“It was fantastic to be able to sequence the golden eagle – it’s such an iconic bird. And the genome we published was very good quality. There are undoubtedly going to be a lot of surprises as we sequence thousands of new species, we’re going to learn a lot, and it’s going to be an exhilarating and impactful project.”
- Profile: Dr Cordelia Langford, Head of Scientific Operations, Wellcome Sanger Institute
- PDF document: BioBeat 18: Top 50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness 2018
- News: Launch of UK BioBank Vanguard Project
- News: Launch of Darwin Tree of Life Project
- News: Golden Eagle reference genome produced by Wellcome Sanger Institute