What got you interested in this area of research?
As a computational biologist, I think that 10 or 20 years ago, we believed that by now, this kind of problem would have been solved. But Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) – looking for genetic variations that may modify the risk of disease – have turned out to be more complex than we thought.
There is the interplay between common and rare genetic variation, which is now something that I'm very keen on understanding. We’re working with other groups in the Sanger Institute to understand this. It's very interesting to see the intersection of both; they are not isolated.
What do you like best about being a scientist?
Well, this is very high level, but it’s discovering new things. That is just ongoing. The thing I like here at the Sanger Institute, in particular, is that we have both a computational team and a laboratory team together. I love that kind of working environment, where we have many interdisciplinary people. I can input into experimental design, because that in turn feeds through into the types of data we will get at the end. I can appreciate how the data are produced, which is vital for analysis. I love working with this great team of people!
What do you think has been the most unexpected finding in IBD research recently?
There has been very interesting work from the Broad Institute in the US (with whom we collaborate), where they have found a genetic variant that is involved in developing cystic fibrosis might be also associated with a lower risk of IBD2.
That was surprising – it will be interesting to understand the mechanism and how these two different diseases might be related, as the symptoms and the tissues involved are so different.
Is there anyone who's inspired you in your career?
I’ve had many role models. My PhD supervisor, Dr Ana Vega, and postdoc supervisor, Professor Alison Dunning, were both important mentors to me. I’ve also been inspired by women in science, like Margarita Salas. She was a molecular biologist who identified methods of DNA replication, and this still has consequences today – it has made single-cell sequencing technologies much more accurate, for example. But it’s not just for her discoveries, she was a role model for other people. She inspired a new generation of scientists in Spain. So she's fantastic.
I do feel that women in science face many, many challenges. I think there's a ceiling issue - we start off being similar numbers of males and females in the early stages of our careers, but then somehow we don't make it to the end part in equal numbers. There are some great initiatives, but it feels like it’s a structural problem in society, it’s a bigger issue, and we’ve got more work to do on that.
If you could time travel, where would you go?
No particular moment in time, but I would like to meet some of the salient women in the past who worked in science. With those people, I’d like to understand how, with all the challenges they had at the time, they managed to have such amazing successful careers.
And finally, is there a word or phrase that is overused in your team?
‘Correlation is not causation’ - that's an important one!