Categories: Sanger Life1 October 20216.2 min read

Talent in Diversity

Over this year’s Black History Month, we are celebrating the diversity of talent here at the Sanger Institute. We have talks events and talks happening across the Wellcome Genome Campus. Here, three of our scientists, Tapoka, John and Tobi reflect on their paths into research and why diversity in science is so important.

Tapoka Mkandawire

Tapoka is a PhD candidate developing laboratory methods to study the role of the gut microbiome in T. trichiuria (whipworm) hatching. She is also interested in host-parasite interactions during infection.

Tell us about your research

I’m currently working in parasitology. I study the molecular biology of the whipworm parasite. It infects millions of people worldwide, causing significant disease. I’m particularly interested in how the parasite interacts with the human gut. These parasites are transmitted from one person to the next via their eggs, which live in contaminated soil, water and food. If someone consumes the eggs, the worms hatch out in the gut. I'm trying to understand what do the worms see in the human intestine that tells them it’s a good place to hatch.

The main thing I am interested in is how to get scientific ideas out there into the world to help people - whether it's making a product or a drug, or just educating people about this really cool thing that someone has found out about. Ideas are great, but it's better to see them actually changing lives. That’s what I hope to do.

As it’s Black History Month, can you tell us who is your black hero?

For me, the most exposure I've had to other black scientists is joining ‘Black In Microbiology’ week. I had seen lots of ‘Black In …’ weeks popping up over the last year on social media, so when Black In Microbiology came up, I thought I’d see if I could help out. And it's been fabulous. It's a community of people I never would have met otherwise, who are inspiring in various different ways. I'm excited to see these names come up in the history books in the future.

Why is diversity in science important?

It’s going help us solve all of the kind of creative problems that we have. We can't solve problems if we all think the same way, or have the same ideas or same background. So more diversity is just going to bring more creative ideas and help us get to some solutions for the really big questions we have.

John Vianney Tushabe

John is an Advanced Research Assistant in the DNA Pipelines Team. He works on the Tree of Life project, preparing DNA samples from a whole range of different species for sequencing.

Why did you become a scientist?

Growing up in Uganda, I was inspired by my Dad’s work. As a District Inspector, part of his job involved ensuring people have access to clean water, and distribution of mosquito nets to control malaria. Looking at him and listening to him got me interested in science – I wanted to study biology and improve people’s health. I admired him a lot - though he maybe doesn’t know that! After school, I chose to study biology at University.

During my undergraduate degree, I carried out an internship at a molecular biology laboratory in Makerere University, Uganda, where I was introduced to a research environment. From there, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies in molecular biology that led me to join the MRC/UVRI Research Unit in Uganda. I then won a highly competitive Sanger fellowship in genomic science to study at Cambridge University, and moved to the UK.

What motivates you?

I grew up in an region that is challenged by infectious diseases – and one of my ambitions is to make a difference. I have a passion for molecular biology, and I want to use the opportunities I have to study science to contribute to making the world a better place.

Why is diversity so important in science?

When you're doing international and collaborative research, you need people that have on the ground experience. So for example, when I worked in the parasite genomics group at Sanger, I was able to give the team perspective of what happens in the field and what the situation is. That would translate into the kind of data analysis we did. So if someone wanted to model transmission of a parasite like malaria, they need to understand how populations move within a region, as that is going to affect the results you see.

Having people from different backgrounds is important because they bring different skills to science. Also, I think a diverse work environment means that it is then easier for others to join, too. It’s about representation - you can see yourself in a team. It is fantastic to be working towards a common goal together with other people from all over the world.

Tobi Alegbe

Tobi is a computational biology PhD student interested in using high-throughput sequencing technologies to better understand highly polygenic disease like inflammatory bowel diseases.

How did you get into science?

When I was much younger I used to love reading the Horrible Science book series, watching David Attenborough documentaries and so on. In my teen years I decided to study biology at university because it was my favourite of the sciences. Then, at university, I realised quite early on I was hopeless at laboratory work – I’m far too clumsy and forgetful. However, after a short summer internship in Jo Santini’s group at UCL, something clicked, and I realised I really enjoyed research. I took more modules with this in mind and generally pivoted towards a career in research from then on. Luckily for me, I found out not long after that I enjoyed computational research more than laboratory-based research so my clumsy and forgetful traits aren’t as much of a problem.

Tell us about your current role

I’m a 2nd year PhD student in the Anderson group – my project involves using whole-genome and single-cell sequencing to better understand the genes, processes and cell-types involved in inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). The ultimate aim of my project and the group as a whole is to uncover drug targets so that those suffering from IBD can have better, personalised treatment.

Why is diversity in science so important?

Diversity fosters new ideas and perspectives – a homogeneous group of geneticists may only think about a problem from a particular angle but when we bring together geneticists, physicists, computer scientists, statisticians and biochemists we can uncover new approaches and solutions. For example, astrophysicists helped with the interpretation of the light signals produced during Illumina DNA sequencing because of how similar the raw images are to stars in a night sky.

And this general idea transfers over to gender, race, disability, social class and sexual orientation. A homogenous group of any of these categories may not consider how research affects or neglects those not in the same group. If we want science to benefit all we need scientists that come from all backgrounds to be contributing ideas.

Find out more

Find out more about our Equality in Science programme