Xylem, Mentoring, and the Worldwide Fantasy Food Tour

Dr Christine Boinett is a bioinformatician in the Parasites and Microbes Programme at the Sanger Institute. Here she speaks about Black History Month, her new international podcast on mentoring, drug-resistant bacteria and a fantasy world-wide taste tour.

Interviewed by Catriona Clarke, Communications Officer at the Sanger Institute

Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

I’m a Principal Bioinformatician with the JUNO Project.

How has your work been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m primarily computer-based, so my work itself hasn’t really been affected. What has been affected is my productivity and mental health.

Sitting at my computer all day is so draining, and of course I’ve been worrying about people. I also miss the day-to-day interactions with people in the office and café. I miss buying people coffee and the subsequent arguments about who will pay.

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

The phrase most prominently used is “quality control”. If you don’t have that sanity check your whole interpretation of your data might be wrong.

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

Long-lasting friendships and collaborations. A place where ideas are fostered and realised.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I had phenomenal biology teachers, Dr Dempsey and Dr Rouan. They got me interested in how things work at a young age. I remember being fascinated by the xylem and phloem system in plants, and that led me into the microscopic world.

I’ve always been really interested in infectious diseases. They’re one of the leading causes of morbidity in Kenya, where I’m from. I started researching HIV, then plasmids, and now I’m working on understanding the genetic mechanisms that underpin bacterial pathogenesis and antimicrobial resistance.

Who is your science hero?

This might sound cliché, working at the Sanger Institute, but I really admire Fred Sanger.

His technique of DNA sequencing is the basis of all that I do and love, and so much of modern biology. Without that, we wouldn’t know anything about which genes cause cancer, antimicrobial resistance, how bacteria evolve. It unlocked the blocks of life, and we wouldn’t have progressed without his pioneering work.

It’s Black History Month, who are some Black scientists whose work you wish more people knew about?

Marie Maynard Daly, who pioneered work on protein synthesis in the early 1950s. She was the first Black American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry in the USA.

Alice Ball, a Black chemist who discovered the first effective leprosy treatment in 1915. 

Iruka Okeke – She is a bacterial geneticist based in Nigeria, she’s just started her lab, and will be interviewed in our Equality and Diversity bonus episode on Your Digital Mentor podcast. She is awesome and making moves on the global stage, nothing stops her.

In August, I took part in Black In Genetics Week on Twitter. Everyone on that hashtag was a current or future leader, I would recommend checking that out to learn about Black scientists to watch.

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

Rapid DNA sequencing. If you had an infection in hospital before this, you’d have to grow up a sample of the infection, and then do an antimicrobial resistance profile to see what you could treat the patient with. Each of those parts takes a minimum of 24 hours each, so you’re talking 2-3 days to get results. Whereas, with rapid DNA sequencing, you’ll get your result in a couple of hours. You’ll know what the bug is and how to treat the patient. It’s phenomenally improved patient outcomes.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made?

In my previous role, I was a postdoc with Amy Cain, Julian Parkhill  and Stephen Baker at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. We found that you can make clinically important bacteria, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Acinetobacter baumanii resistant to a last line drug, colistin in less than a week. A pretty scary finding and only highlights the urgency for new antibiotics in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

You’ve recently launched the Your Digital Mentor podcast, can you tell us more?

Back in November, just after I started my current role at Sanger, my friend Alice Matimba, who works in the Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences team, told me I should apply for a mentorship scheme with TDR Global. I was one of four finalists, but wasn’t eligible for funding because I’m based in a European country. My idea was to create a mentorship podcast, because with commuting four hours a day, I knew what I was talking about when it came to podcasts.

I had a week to write a proposal, and was initially just going to interview people at Sanger, then brought Alice into the team and we decided to interview African scientists. We both have a global network of people, so wanted to showcase great people doing great things from around the globe.

At the time, we didn’t know how it would be feasible, with us in a studio on the Wellcome Genome Campus, and the interviewee somewhere else in the world. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and everything had to be virtualised anyway, so the format is exactly as we hoped and planned for.

One of the panel for TDR Global, Emmanuela Oppong, really loved the idea for our podcast so has joined as a producer. Our team (the sensational six) are women from all over the globe – Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uruguay, Brazil, Portugal and UK, namely, myself, Alice Matimba, Isabela Malta, Emmanuela Oppong, Catherine Holmes and Mariana Vaz.

The series aims to provide access to phenomenal mentors through the medium of podcasts. Our podcast explores topics around mentoring and career development, including imposter syndrome and burnout, tackling the challenges through real stories and honest discussions from expert guests around the world, with a special focus on global health research. 

In Black History Month, we will release a special two-part bonus episode on equity and diversity in research. We have Professor Iruka Okeke from Nigeria, and Professor Eva Maria C. Cutiongco-de la Paz from the Philippines, as well as Professor Collet Dandara from South Africa, and Black British in STEM who will talk to us about equity, diversity, inclusion and representation in research.

In part two we hear from Dr. Saher Ahmed from the Sanger Institute and Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, from University College London about how institutions and the research community can address inequities and diversity.

Everyone should have a seat at the table when it comes to global health, and I think nothing has brought this to the forefront more than COVID-19. You can’t make a vaccine with just one country, you have to involve everyone.

You can read more about us here or follow us on Twitter.

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

I’d jump forward 10-15 years to see how artificial intelligence has revolutionised medicine, I’d love to see what happens. I’d then jump forward 50 years from now, and see how we’ve (hopefully) addressed inequities and injustice in the world, and we’ll be able to say that they’re truly a thing of the past.

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

I have two answers for this, depending on whether I’m all-powerful for the day, or whether I have a superpower.

I can’t solve the world’s problems in a day, even if I am all-powerful, so I wanted to do something where I could do good and have lasting effects. Therefore, everyone who was able-bodied would have to pick up litter for the day, and the world would be so much cleaner and look amazing after just that one day’s work.

If I had a superpower, I would travel at the speed of light. In that one day, I would watch the sunrise in New Zealand, grab a coffee in Sydney, Australia (where I hear the coffee is amazing), and then pop over to the Great Wall of China for a stroll. I’d then go to Ho Chi Minh City, where I would have Pho for breakfast. I would then go for a swim in the Indian Ocean and grab lunch in Italy. Then, down to West Africa for a snack of Jollof rice and then onto the Louisiana Bayous for a boat ride where I could watch the wildlife. Then to Peru to visit the Rainbow Mountains, and I would end the day with dinner in Argentina before returning home as a mere mortal.