Fighting Pathogens with Data and Partnerships

Anastasia Hernandez-Koutoucheva is a data analyst in the Parasites and Microbes Programme at the Sanger Institute. Her team works on analysing data from sequencing the genomes of a range of pathogens and parasites, including the coronavirus. Anastasia’s focus is on the genomic surveillance of the Plasmodium parasite species that causes malaria. She works as part of the Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network, MalariaGEN.

Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

Create analytical outputs and curate data for infectious disease control.

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

Surveillance. We do use it a lot. Everyone has a different idea of what surveillance is, so we are often discussing what it means.

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

A community that works together to improve health using cutting-edge methodologies.

Why did you become a scientist?

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of doing anything else. I had a curiosity of knowing how the world works; that was the first thing. Then I learned more about genomics, and then I discovered how important it can be for public health and infectious disease – I knew that was what I wanted to work in.

I came to Sanger from a purely academic environment and I always thought I was just going to follow the usual route, and do a PhD and then look for postdoctoral positions after that. But I realised I enjoyed the data interpretation side of things more than anything else, so I decided to look for a job in data analysis.

It’s true you can do data science and analysis in any field. But with genomics, you can work in something that is meaningful, and you can contribute to knowledge of infectious diseases. That’s what made it very attractive. I’m very fortunate with the team I work with every day. Everyone is very supportive and passionate about their jobs, and always looking to make a difference.

How has your work been affected by COVID-19?

For my work, I use data that was collected before the pandemic began, so I am fortunate enough to not have problems with that. It’s true that this might change with time, but we’ve tried to adapt and mitigate risks. 

Our team, as a whole, works on a range of different data analysis projects – personally, most of my time is spent working with Plasmodium falciparum data, but I also contribute to other projects, such as the recent efforts related to coronavirus.

For other team members, the balance is quite different, which sometimes means that people are less available for certain tasks or need to switch between them, without leaving one behind.

Certainly, COVID-19 has affected how everyone sees genomic surveillance, which brings new opportunities. Our learnings in malaria surveillance have contributed to shape the response to a new pathogen. And also, the COVID-19 response has showed us that it is possible to have real-time surveillance, which could improve how we work with malaria in the years to come.

Who is your science hero?

A very inspiring scientist for me, is Dr. Ayari Fuentes Hernandez. She works on theoretical and experimental models of bacterial evolution and drug resistance. I spent time with her group during my undergraduate program in Mexico, where I had my first experience using computational and mathematical methods to tackle biological problems. She has been an incredible mentor and shown me the importance of working towards solving  problems you feel passionate about.

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

The fact that we can share data easily now. There is still work to be done, but the fact that groups like MalariaGEN have spent so much time and effort building partnerships to ensure we can share data with the world has been key and is going to continue to be key.

We can talk about data analysis and data science but without the actual data, the correct partnerships, and all the efforts of the scientists in the field, we wouldn’t be able to do any work.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned recently?

Something I’ve learned is that when you curate and analyse data your work doesn’t end when you release it. Particularly when working with biological and epidemiological data, you have a duty to do the best you can with the resources you can access to bring value to users. Part of this involves thinking beyond the research you’ve conducted, from how to adequately communicate it to the impact you have on improving health. While of course, thinking about what comes next.

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

I would be tempted to go forwards and see how many of the world’s most pressing problems have been resolved, like drug resistance and climate change. It is tempting to see if we did enough.

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

I would definitely clean all the data there is to clean, so we don’t have to do that anymore!

Find out more….

Want to work in data analysis at the Sanger Institute? For more information on vacancies, please visit the careers pages of the website.