Categories: Sanger Life, Tree of Life28 March 20225.3 min read

Barcoding creatures and building confidence

Leia works in the Tree of Life Programme at the Sanger Institute, in the Evolutionary Genomics group.

Tell us about your work

I'm a research assistant, and I work on the BIOSCAN project. The goal of BIOSCAN is very ambitious; we aim to document every flying insect in the UK, by DNA barcoding. DNA barcoding is like checking a very small, but identifiable area of an organism's DNA. BIOSCAN is like a surveillance system, monitoring biodiversity. We also work on symbiomes, where we are looking at how insects interact with parasites, their environment and the other creatures around them. Many flying insects are pollinators and under immense pressure due to climate change so understanding their ecology and genomes is particularly important at the moment.

My job is lab based. I assist with project research and development, run DNA extractions as part of the barcoding process and lots of PCRs. I also take care of the insectary where we rear mosquitoes to use as model insects. But I also occasionally like to go outside and catch insects.

Is there a word or phrase that is overused in your team?

Mosquito, mosquito, mosquito.

Mosquitoes are such ungrateful, annoying little buggers. I shower them with my love and care and the only thing they want to do is bite me.

Why did you become a scientist?

I've always found nature really cool. Like how seeds turn from a little pebble into a plant. Growing up in China I had the privilege of being near big mountains, vast bamboo forests and awesome animals. I wouldn't say there's a single event that got me into this. The state of living and living things are just really fascinating and beautiful.

At the moment, I’m interested in biodiversity. I’ve not worked in a laboratory before coming to Sanger, but I am fascinated by genomics – it’s how the next generation of biodiversity and zoological studies are going to be done.

What's been the most exciting development in your field of work in the last five years?

I would say being able to do DNA sequencing quickly, affordably, and also in random places, like in a field station. DNA sequencers are becoming much more affordable, very small and easier to use. It means that people in low and middle-income countries (which often have very high biodiversity), and people doing field work in remote places, can now do important work on biodiversity more easily.

Also, the increasingly widespread use of environmental DNA in biodiversity and paleobiology studies is amazing – it’s like looking at footprints to see who’s been where. You don’t even need real organisms as samples, you just need soil, water or even air and you can sequence the DNA fragments and find out what is, or was, there. We can see the invisible worlds of biodiversity this way.

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

Sanger is staggeringly diverse.

I was worried when I came to Sanger that I’d be navigating a world dominated by older, white-haired men – because that’s the stereotypical image of a scientist and how most of my university lecturers look. But it’s not like that. I think most of the people I know and work with are from really far away places. And I would say I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of women in leading scientific positions.

Could you reflect on being a woman in science, and any barriers you have faced?

I do face barriers. But I think part of the problem is these are so ingrained into the system and society, sometimes I can't see them. For example, people around me when I was young - teachers, or even my parents - didn't necessarily think of ways to channel my curiosity and interests. I don't think any teacher ever told me, “Oh, you might be a really good scientist, you might be a naturalist one day.”

Another thing is that a lot of men are overall more confident than women, and quite often overconfident, or confidently incorrect. And it can be quite challenging to be the only woman in a conversation, whether it's just casual chatting, or in a scientific discussion. It can be difficult to chip in.

I think even at a fairly young age, women are taught how to make people feel comfortable in a conversation, you know, don't be too out there. Don't be too much. Don't interrupt, give people opportunities to speak, slow down and don't cut into someone else's conversation. Whereas I'm under the impression that men just do it. I’ve made a goal for myself to be more confidently incorrect.

What advice would you give to younger scientists?

I think when you have an idea, or when you want to do something, just pursue it, don't think too much about it. Because I feel like quite a lot of people, myself included, can be overcautious. Say, if someone wants to try science at university, or they want to try and apply for this internship opportunity - just put your thoughts into action.

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

Some tiny fish species live in the anuses of sea cucumbers. Many species of pearlfish squeeze themselves into a sea cucumber anus for shelter. Sometimes the sea cucumber (understandably) isn’t happy with this and they close down their anus, but their resistance is ultimately futile because sea cucumbers breathe through their bum and they can only hold their breath for so long. Most pearlfish species are usually solitary but will congregate for mating, so you can get something like 15 pearlfishes spawning in a sea cucumber bum.

If you could time travel to anywhere, where would you go?

I want to go back to a time when there were many human species – when Neanderthals and Denisovans were still here and before Homo sapiens dominated the world. There will be loads and loads of “people” who are kind of like us, but not. I’d love to find out what they are like and see the world was like back then before we messed it up.

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