This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Lara Urban, 26, from Germany, is a PhD student at the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute and at the University of Cambridge, UK.
In her PhD, she uses machine learning and statistical methods to better understand our genome. Specifically, she studies the genomes of cancer patients to understand how mutations contribute to the development of a tumor. Enjoy the interview with Lara and get inspired.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I think there is nothing more inspiring than nature itself, its diversity, resilience and sheer beauty. Hence, what could be more exciting than studying nature and the living beings that are part of it? Life at its organismal level motivated me to study different ecosystems and species in many places around the world, and life at its genetic basis fuelled my interest into genomics research. My motivation behind understanding and exploring ecological and molecular processes, has, however, always been the conservation of what we have left of nature. I think the rate of growth of humanity has been at the expense of nature, and humanity itself may lose its place in nature if no one remembers to take care of it. I want to take care of nature by studying it, understanding how best to preserve it, and putting that knowledge into action.
Who are your role models?
I don’t really have a role model in the classical sense of aiming to emulate a specific person. However, Alexander von Humboldt and Jane Goodall are very inspiring to me, as both of them dedicated their whole lives to studying what interested them and, in addition, were wonderfully adventurous and met nature with curiosity and amazement.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I studied both ecology and computational biology during my Bachelor and Master studies in Germany. I had the opportunity and funding from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation to travel to remote research stations, located in tropical rainforests, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, on remote Canadian islands, or close to impressive coral reefs in Malaysia. There, I acquired and analysed data first-hand for answering various ecological research questions. I became both interested and adept in statistical analyses, and I started working on ecosystem modelling for my Bachelor thesis and developed a computational tool for my Master thesis. I then decided to focus entirely on computational biology during my PhD to learn as much about statistics, machine learning and genomics as possible. I hence applied for the EMBL fellowship at the European Bioinformatics Institute in UK, an institute at the forefront of research in computational biology. Here, I learned a lot about what I can do with my data, and, more importantly, how to work as a scientist. As I am now in the final year of my PhD, I am determined to establish myself as an expert in both ecology and computational genomics and contribute to the advancement of genomics research in ecology and conservation.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am lucky to have worked on a number of very cool projects. I had an amazing time working as an ecologist on, for example, orca whales, re-establishing coral reefs, and avian diversity in the Pantanal. Next year, I will be going to New Zealand to figure out how to use genomic information in the conservation of the critically endangered kakapo, and I am sure that will be a blast. But if I had to pick, I’d say my coolest project is one I am working on right now. A few friends and I started a project called “PuntSeq”, which aims to sequence the microbial diversity of our local river, the Cam, with a portable DNA sequencing device, the “MinION”. This project is special to me, because we taught ourselves a lot and worked closely with each other to manage the project. So far, we have established a whole pipeline, from collecting samples of water from the Cam, measuring environmental variables, extracting and sequencing DNA, to all the computational analyses. I am thrilled to see the results of our work, but also just the process has been wonderful.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
I think I might have been trying to prevent myself from feeling immensely proud of any piece of work or idea, since I did not want to be so convinced by it that I am no longer open to other angles of looking at it. However, I very much enjoy communicating my work to others. If a presentation goes well and the audience reacts enthusiastically, I am thrilled. Specifically, poster sessions can be a lot of fun with getting direct input from other researchers, and outreach activities have always left me very enthusiastic about my work, especially after chatting about topics like Jurassic Park and sequencing DNA in beer with a surprisingly engaged audience.
What is a “day in the life” of Lara like?
Almost every day is different, as I travel a lot for work. When I don’t, I often start the day with sports (either rowing or running along the river Cam), as it clears my mind and relieves stress. I’d then get a strong black coffee and go to work, where I spend most of my time on statistical analyses of genomic data for my research projects. A typical day will also involve Skype meetings, writing emails, drafting applications, preparing presentations, and, if it’s a good day, working on a manuscript. In the evenings, I’d go to the pub with friends or attend events at my college (Wolfson College Cambridge) such as talks, formal dinners or sports classes. Summer months are great as there are barbecues going on all the time, and I can go for swims in the evenings. I am also learning to play the guitar so when I have time for myself, that’s what I’ll do.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I want to work towards establishing genomics research as a means to understand, monitor and maintain biodiversity in ecosystems. This can be achieved through applying methods commonly used in genomics research for assessing important measures, including levels of inbreeding and genetic risk for diseases of endangered species as well as the interaction between their genetic variants and their environment.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I like spending time outside, so I go running or rowing a lot. I am also a keen hiker and scuba diver whenever I get the chance. I have recently started learning Spanish and playing the guitar, and it’s fun even though I’m not very good at either at the moment. I enjoy simple things like meeting friends, reading books, having good wine and food, and watching the news (especially if they are delivered by John Oliver).
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
I would like to tell every woman interested in science to believe in herself and just do it; there is much more to gain than to lose. However, I feel that just saying that to someone might not have an actual impact on this person’s doubts and self-consciousness. So, more specifically, I would say to anyone interested in science, including my younger self, that it is important to identify your goals and motivations, yet remain flexible on the means they may be achieved with. Sometimes the best laid plans fail, and it is important to forgive oneself and recognise there may be other ways. Life (on a scientific and personal level) may not turn out as you have neatly planned it, but the outcome can still be great, or even better than anticipated.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
There is so much happening right now that I think I can justifiably name a number of research directions that will probably result in breakthroughs, such as gene editing, single-cell assays, and personalised medicine. I am, however, particularly excited about the prospects of the Earth BioGenome Project, an international effort that aims to sequence and characterise the genomes of all known eukaryotes within a decade. Assessing biodiversity on our earth and taking measures to preserve it are among the most essential and challenging task we should take on. The BioGenome project represents a crucial first step towards obtaining an open repository of all biodiversity’s genomic data.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
There remains a difference in burden carried by men and women for bearing and raising a child. That, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons women may be less able to spend much time and energy on a demanding scientific career than men or are less willing to sacrifice their life-work balance for science. A simple solution for this problem would be giving men and women equal leave from work for childcare and improving the inclusion of children into research life by allowing parents to bring their child to research institutes, conferences and workshops.