Dinosaurs and the high seas

Dr Eugene Gardner is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Human Genetics Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. His research focuses on the role of structural variations in developmental disorders as part of the Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD) consortium. Eugene is also interested in how copy number variation impacts RNA and protein expression.

Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

Looking at how large genomic rearrangements affect complex human traits.

What is the most overused word or phrase in your lab?

Power. Statistical power, do we have enough samples or the right data?

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

A place to freely ask questions and explore.

Why did you become a scientist?

I’ve always felt a need to study the natural world. When I was very young, I was really interested in marine biology and had all of these books about fish and the oceans and Jacques Cousteau. Like many young people, I also really liked dinosaurs and palaeontology; I thought it would be really fun to go dig up some dinosaur bones.

It’s kind of the thing that’s always been there. I went to university with the intent of doing a science degree without ever really thinking about it – I’ve always enjoyed the process of the scientific method: asking the question and trying to understand.

Who is your science hero?

As a young person, Jacques Cousteau would definitely be there. Diving into the unknown and creating machines to answer the questions they wanted to answer. My grandmother gave me a photograph book of his underwater adventures which definitely inspired me.

In terms of a more recent scientific hero, when I had just graduated university and was trying to work out if I wanted to be a research scientist, I joined the lab of Dr Joseph Gall. He runs a lab at Johns Hopkins University in the US, and not to call him out for his age, but he was 84 when I joined his lab and still funded by the US Federal Government. His career has spanned since before the structure of DNA was discovered, all the way to using DNA as input for high-throughput sequencing, which is what I was researching with his group. He was immensely supportive of his trainees, in particular of women in the 1960s and 70s, which was a time when many people thought women should be at home, rather than working in the lab. He didn’t care who you were or where you were from, if you did good science and wanted to work with him, he was happy to take you on. He’s 91 now, and I think still funded. He’s still got it.

What is the most exciting development in your field from the last 10 years?

CRISPR-Cas9, and the therapeutic benefit it can offer to humanity, particularly in my field where we look at rare developmental disorders. We might be able to come up with all kinds of genetic therapies thanks to gene editing with CRISPR.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made?

I’ve always been interested in computers and programming. Where I went for my undergraduate degree, there wasn’t much interaction between traditional biology and computer science, and the fact that I discovered that those two things could exist together (such as bioinformatics or statistical genetics), was pretty instrumental in my career.

If you could time travel to any period in history, which would you pick?

There are two sides to this, with where I would want to go visit if I could time travel, and where I would want to live if I could time travel. I want to live in this time, because I wouldn’t like to die of a myriad of transmissible diseases.

On the other hand, if I could be a tourist in the past, and wasn’t there long enough to contract black plague or some terrible disease, I think it would be really cool to go on a sailing ship in the 1600s, with that sense of adventure of being on the high seas.

Ultimately I like being here, with modern medicine and vaccines.

If you were omnipotent for the day, what is the first thing you would do?

I’d probably just sit at home, kick back, and materialise some pints next to me. Everything else seems like you’re kind of a jerk. As soon as you start messing with the order of the world in such grandiose designs, I think things will turn really bad really quick. Honestly, I think I wouldn’t mess with humanity at all and I would go see if there was life elsewhere in the universe.