A lasting legacy

Meet the next generation of genomic scientists who are benefiting from our founder’s generosity

By Ali Cranage, Science Writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Our founding director, Sir John Sulston, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. He donated his prize money and set up The Sanger Prize – giving undergraduate students from low and middle income countries the chance to spend three months working here. We spoke to this year’s winners about their experiences.

Malaria and cancer

Andrea Ong and Sophia Hernandez were awarded the Sanger Prize in 2018 and joined the Wellcome Sanger Institute for three months earlier this year. They are both in their final year of undergraduate studies in the Philippines.

Sophia chose to work in Dr Julian Rayner’s group, studying malaria. “I’m really interested in infectious diseases, parasites and viruses,” she explains. “Not only are they really relevant where I’m from, but I also think the biology of parasites is very interesting. They are so small and sometimes they might be considered lesser organisms, but they can do so much damage.”

Andrea worked in Dr Matthew Garnett’s lab, studying cancer. She is particularly interested in translational research – research that is closer to patients than to fundamental biology. She has been investigating potential cancer drug targets identified by the team’s Cancer DepMap project, which is developing a rulebook for precision cancer treatments.

Andrea with Stacey Price (right), a colleague in the Garnett research team

Learning CRISPR

Applying cutting edge techniques have been important for both Sophia and Andrea.

Andrea explained: “CRISPR is one of the most sophisticated gene-editing platforms there is. At home we learn about it in class, but we don’t get to do it. Here, I’ve been able to do it myself. I’ve also been able to work with viruses to introduce DNA into cells – another technique that is not common at home.”

“Part of the reason I applied was so that I could learn more research techniques. Especially techniques we don’t normally have at home, or don’t have access to. I really wanted to learn how to do CRISPR and how to use the flow cytometers. I contacted Julian before I arrived so we could set that up,” says Sophia.

Sophia has been investigating the ACS10 gene in the parasite that causes malaria. A change, or mutation, in the gene is thought to cause resistance to antimalarial drugs. She is using CRISPR to create parasite cells with specific mutations – these cells can then be tested to see if they are susceptible to the drug. “It’s exciting. I’m learning a lot,” she says. She will take her knowledge back to her institute in the Philippines where several research groups are setting up similar techniques. 

Sophia investigated drug resistance in the malaria parasite

Sanger life

Sophia and Andrea both spoke about the collaborative nature of work at the Sanger Institute.

“Apart from the research, I think the environment is really good. I really like it that I can ask anyone in the lab for help and they willingly give me input and suggestions. I think that collaboration is really important at Sanger. There is so much to learn from all these researchers,” says Sophia.

Andrea agrees: “I saw how important it was that there are many different people with different expertise working together on a project.”

Andrea with her colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Cambridge life

Andrea says she’s enjoyed the entire experience. “Not just working at the Sanger Institute, but getting to know my lab mates outside of work too. Some have been taken me around Cambridge. One of them was a fellow at Clare College, so she took me on a tour. I also got to visit my first pub. Pubs are not very popular in the Philippines. A work mate invited me and bought me my first drink, which was very nice.”

Though not all aspects of Cambridge have been so enjoyable, “The biggest hurdle for me was the weather. It’s much warmer in the Philippines,” says Sophia.

Sophia with her malaria team colleagues at the Sanger Institute

The future

Sophia has recently completed her undergraduate studies in the Philippines and is enrolled to start a masters degree. She hopes to complete a PhD after that and continue her career in research.

Andrea is returning to Cambridge in the autumn to start a masters degree in bioscience enterprise. She is thankful for the friends and connections she has made. “It’s one of the most important parts. Those people will help wherever you want to head next.”

Socialising after work

Advice for applicants

Sophia’s advice is to take the chance of applying: “You won’t lose anything. It’s a really great experience if you get to do it.”

Sanger Prize 2020 – launches in October 2019

The Sanger Prize competition 2020 will launch in October 2019. Further details will be available on the Sanger Institute website at that time.

Find out more