Ada Lovelace Day 2020 – The women of computational biology today

Ada Lovelace. Source: Suw Charman-Anderson on Flickr
Ada Lovelace as depicted by Suw Charman-Anderson on Flickr

Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the first to recognise the full potential of computers and as one of the first computer programmers. 

In honour of Ada Lovelace Day 2020we are shining the spotlight on some of the remarkable women that we have met during our training courses this year. 

 


Who? Hema Bye-A-Jee
Job title: Senior Scientific Database Curator, EMBL-EBI
Where to find her? Hema is delivering the webinar ‘A Guide to UniProt for Students’ via the EMBL-EBI training website tomorrow (14 October 2020). It is full, but the recording will be available the next day.

PHOTO: Hema Bye-A-Jee
PHOTO: Hema Bye-A-Jee

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently? 
I am a scientific curator for the UniProt team and I primarily sift through scientific publications to annotate C.elegans proteins, but I get to find out about lots of proteins in many organisms. Engaging with scientific and non-scientific communities is a very important aspect of what we do. Not only does my role feed my scientific curiosity, but it also enables me to help others to look at their data in different ways; we prepare specialised workshops and webinars, such as the “guide to UniProt for students” which I shall be presenting tomorrow.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
It means a lot because I know that many struggles and injustices have been endured, and it is unsettling that battles are still ongoing in many respects. I believe that science is for everyone and earning a place at the discovery table shouldn’t be based on gender, age, race, or even who shouts the loudest. If you can see beyond what’s right in front of you and can question it, surely you should at least be deserved of an invitation to be in the same room as the table!

What are your aspirations for your career in the future? 
I am very fortunate because I get to read about something new every day. I hope to continue working at the forefront of scientific discovery and innovation and take forwards my skills in communicating complex scientific principles, and wish to help others achieve the most from their data in the intellectual property law field.


Who? Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti
Job title: Postdoc at the John Innes Centre
Where to find her? Rea was a recent speaker at the EMBL-EBI Mathematics of Life: Modelling Molecular Mechanisms virtual course. You can find her slides on our ftp site.

Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti
Rea Antoniou-Kourounioti

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently?
My work combines mathematical modelling and experimental biology to understand how temperature affects when plants decide to flower. I am currently part of the groups of Martin Howard and Caroline Dean, and our work focuses on the gene FLC, which is epigenetically silenced in response to cold. We recently discovered one of the temperature sensing mechanisms that affect this gene and compared plants adapted to different climates. We found that the levels of the gene in autumn are very important for their different responses, and we are now trying to understand the mechanism that determines these levels.

Who or what inspired you to enter a career in STEM? 
I was fortunate to grow surrounded by academia, because both my parents were at the University, my mother specialising in biology and my father in maths. Therefore, I had many role models, though the pattern of women in biology/men in maths was prevalent in my environment. However, I was very close to a woman mathematician (the first female professor of Mathematics in Greece) who would give me puzzles to solve at all the grown-up parties. Solving puzzles was my passion then, and so it remains, and there are so many unsolved puzzles in biology!

What do you hope the future of working in STEM looks like?
More focus needs to be put towards understanding the complex reasons that women leave science at all career stages such as a different perception of worth, both from the outside and the inside. Hiring and assessment procedures favour characteristics associated with men, e.g., I still remember the lack of confidence I have had to battle to make my voice heard in meetings. This is deeply rooted in the differently promoted values for boys and girls and needs to be battled there and in its consequences. Events such as the Nobel prize recognising women this year helps girls to see that science is (also) for women and gives them inspiring role models like I was lucky to have.


Who? Zuzana Jandova
Job title: Postdoc at Utrecht University
Where to find her? Zuzana is a speaker at the upcoming BioExcel Winter School on Biomolecular Simulations event. Applications are currently open.

PHOTO: Zuzanna Jandova
PHOTO: Zuzanna Jandova

Tell us about your work, what are you working on right now?
As a part of the HADDOCK team at the Utrecht University, I focus on dissemination and training of our software as well as my own research. In training, we prepare tutorials, organise workshops and summer/winter schools, answer questions on public forums and make software easier and more approachable to users. In my own research, I look at how the combination of a traditional docking approach with molecular dynamics simulations and machine learning can improve the prediction of protein-protein interactions. This is then applied in areas like antibody design, where we can engineer antibodies in pharmaceutical research.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
I would like to stay in the biomedical field, where I also started when I decided to study pharmacy. Working in research, more specifically academia gave me a lot such as critical thinking, data management and project planning which I would like to take further into a more applied area. Thus, working in a pharmaceutical company or research institute where I could focus on not only the first theoretical stages of drug development but also on the further use of the drugs and biologics on the market would be a good option for me.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
To be honest I have never thought about my gender as a key element for my career choice. However, I realise that women are still somewhat underrepresented in computer or technical sciences in general. This is also why I think it is important that we talk more about women in science which can be a great example and inspiration for younger generations. And the more recognition we get, the more it becomes a norm to take women as an equal, respectable and knowledgeable part of the society. 


Name: Alessandra Villa
Job title: Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Where to find her? Alessandra is a speaker at the upcoming BioExcel Winter School on Biomolecular Simulations event. Applications are currently open.

PHOTO: Alessandra Villa
PHOTO: Alessandra Villa

Tell us about your work, what are you working on right now?
I was educated as a chemist. Early in my career, I realised that I was very interested in solving biophysical problems, thus I decided to do it using molecular modelling and computer simulation. My work focuses on improving molecular models to better describe how macromolecules interact. This can deepen our understanding of their function. Higher-education teaching has also played a key role in my career. Currently, I am working at the European Center of Excellence BioExcel, applying my expertise to promote and improve the use of advanced scientific tools.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
My aspiration is to contribute to building a lively environment that combines high-level teaching and research and to move to a coordination role with more decision power.  

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
To be a scientist in STEM means to be able to understand, to contribute, to deepen our knowledge and to teach/disseminate on how nature (in my case molecules) function. In addition, it also means to be able to critically evaluate any new information and to be curious about things in general.  To be a woman in STEM is to be a scientist in STEM.

In the later stage of my career, I have realised that as a woman in STEM I always had to really demonstrate what I know. I was evaluated for what I did and not for what I could do, and further steps in my career may be full of “unpredictable” obstacles.


Name: Molly Gasperini
Job title: PhD Scientist, Octant
Where to find her? Molly was a speaker at a recent EMBL-EBI Industry Programme virtual workshop: High Throughput of Assessment of Functional Human Mutations. EMBL-EBI Industry programme members can download the slides from the members area.

PHOTO: Molly Gasperini
PHOTO: Molly Gasperini

Tell us a bit about your work, what are you researching currently?
I am developing high throughput functional assays to screen drugs against neuropsychiatric receptors at a scale and speed never before achieved. Find out more.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in STEM today?
I am extremely fortunate to be a part of science at a time where women generations before me (like Ada) have broken down many previous gender-based barriers. Though improvement is still required, most parts of science are largely welcoming for female scientists. Now, it is our responsibility to break down existing barriers for scientists who don’t identify with the racial, sexual-identity, or economic majority of the scientific community.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?
I have always struggled with whether to climb the traditional ladder of leadership, though such job advancement takes you further from the bench and Rstudio, and into more meetings! Fundamentally, I hope to always continue working on thrilling tech dev as part of a rigorous and fun team.


Follow #ALD20 on Twitter to celebrate even more women, advocates and educators in STEM.


Authors

PHOTO: Michelle Mendonca
PHOTO: Michelle Mendonca

PHOTO: Rebecca Nicholl
PHOTO: Rebecca Nicholl

PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy
PHOTO: Emily Pomeroy
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Meet the Trainer – Ashley Sanders

In spirit of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), we are proud to launch our “Meet the Trainer” Series, in which we will profile some of the amazing trainers from the EMBL Course Programme. We begin with Dr. Ashley D. Sanders, a distinguished scientist in the Genome Biology Unit of EMBL whose research focuses on how single-cell genomes change over time and how this impacts cell behavior.

Ashley will be training at the upcoming EMBO Practical Course: Single-Cell Omics (12 – 18 May 2019) and we asked her to give us some insights and tips for the course, as well as answer some not so scientific questions.

What is the greatest benefit of the course for the scientific community?

Without a doubt, single-cell measurements have emerged as the most direct method for deconvoluting complex and heterogeneous samples, and for exploring how subpopulations of cells respond to experimental manipulations. This course will allow participants to learn some of the most cutting-edge technologies and gain valuable hands-on experience from leading experts in the field. I hope this will help inspire new research, discoveries and collaborations.

What could the techniques in this course be used for in the bigger picture?

New technology equips us with new tools to explore long-standing questions in biology. Emergent single-cell omics methods are now providing us with the chance to ask how individual cells differ in terms of their DNA mutational profiles, epigenomic states and transcriptional outputs – enabling us to explore dynamic cellular relationships through a new lens. In unravelling these relationships we will better understand how diversity is established and maintained in healthy human tissues, and how aberrations in these processes can lead to disease.

Are the methods used in this course unusual or new?

The course will highlight some of the newest and most exciting methods in genomic research, including single cell bisulfite sequencing, single-cell RNA-seq and Strand-seq. Strand-seq is a novel single-cell and strand-specific sequencing method and this is the first time it will be offered in a course format.

 What is your number one tip related to the course?

Engage. Take time to interact with the other participants and the trainers. This course offers a unique opportunity to meet your colleagues in the field of single-cell biology, which can lead to new relationships and collaborations.

What challenges is your research field facing?

Single-cell genomics is expensive, noisy and complex. We need to bring down the cost of production to increase throughput and access more cells. We need to improve benchtop protocols to generate higher quality data from each cell we invest in. And we need smarter and faster bioinformatics that extract meaningful signal and integrate data layers across cells and experiments.

Where is science heading in your opinion?

We are in a single-cell omics era. Novel approaches are now available to untangle complex biological systems through multi-layered and complementary data types. By designing smart experiments that integrate across these layers, I believe we are positioned to unravel how homeostatic multicellular tissues are generated and maintained. In understanding these nuanced and cooperative inter-cell relationships, we will be in a position to deliver more holistic cell-based health care. This may involve selectively targeting rogue cells that disrupt our systems or producing functional regenerative tissues for transplants.

What was your first ever job?

Selling coffee through the Tim Hortons drive-thru in Toronto, Canada

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

Yoga instructor

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