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Day in the life of … a wheat bioinformatician on her own research path

Dr Laura-Jayne Gardiner realised how essential a bioinformatics skill set was to keep up with advanced genomics - placing her in great stead to becoming an independent researcher.

July 18, 2018

We hear from Dr Laura-Jayne Gardiner on embarking upon the wheat plight to help breeders produce better quality yields. Working her way up the bioscience career ladder, Laura realised how essential a bioinformatics skillset was to keep up with advanced genomics - placing her in great stead to becoming an independent researcher.

How did you get into genomics, why did you choose EI?

I originally worked in cancer research at the University of Liverpool as a lab Research Assistant identifying biomarkers linked to Leukaemia. I was using Sanger sequencing at the time to verify mutations in DNA. I really enjoyed the experience but was always interested in the computational analysis that was being carried out by the bioinformaticians to verify the lab work. I saw a PhD project come up at Liverpool with Anthony Hall and Neil Hall, analysing Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) datasets to identify genes linked to traits of interest in various plants including wheat. This was too good an opportunity to miss, not only the chance to learn bioinformatics but to learn it using large NGS sequencing datasets. I knew by the end of the PhD I would have a solid transferrable bioinformatics skillset.

After my PhD, my supervisor moved to the Earlham Institute to be Head of Plant Genomics and offered me the chance to go with him to be Senior Postdoctoral Researcher in his group. I jumped at the chance to have the opportunity to move up the ladder, to work in an Institute that hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe and finally, to work within the Norwich Research Park; an international centre of excellence in life and environmental sciences research.

Can you tell us about your role at EI? What’s your motivation?

I am the Senior Postdoctoral Researcher of Dr Anthony Hall’s Plant Genomics Group. As the senior postdoc, I am involved in the management of the group; I represent Anthony at any meetings or conferences that he is unable to attend and I contribute scientific support to assist with the publication of research beyond my own project. This has been a great opportunity to increase my scientific profile. However, I still spend a large proportion of my time doing research.

My current research is bioinformatically based and involves international collaboration where I have had the opportunity to forge links with researchers who have a high level of expertise in genomics. I am always keen to discover new things and aim to publish my findings to publicise my work. Seeing my work, or the work of other members of the group, published in a high impact journal gives me a huge amount of pride and job satisfaction.

What does your typical day look like?

With doing mostly bioinformatics, I spend most of the day sitting at my computer. That said, research is rarely predictable. I am a big fan of to-do lists; I make one every week … and never stick to it! Things always take either much longer or much less time than you expect, research nearly always leads you down a path that you were not expecting, to reveal new and sometimes really exciting results. At the moment, I am nearing the end of my current project so I spend a lot of my time writing the results of my research up into manuscripts to be published.

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... You need a thick skin to do research; there will be rejections in the form of papers, fellowships and grants.

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What project are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a project that aims to explore DNA methylation in wheat. The ultimate aim of the work is to determine if methylation can be used alongside genetics to increase wheat yields. Prior to this work, DNA methylation was something that had previously eluded researchers. Encompassing changes in how genes are expressed without changes in the actual DNA sequence; methyl groups can be added onto DNA and can ‘turn off’ genes so that they are no longer used. This is exciting because it means that if we can fully understand methylation, then breeders could have an extra useful tool in the strive to increase yields.

What’s the best part of your day?

I have a defined three-year project that I love and I am given the independence to manage my own time and largely to perform the research as I see fit to meet the project goals. With this way of working, I enjoy most parts of my day. However, as a bioinformatician, there is nothing better than the feeling you get when you have set off a large number of analyses that will run on the HPC system overnight and you can go home and put your feet up safe in the knowledge that you are still (effectively) working hard!

Laura working on wheat in Mexico.

Laura-Jayne Gardiner

What’s your proudest work achievement so far? Is there something you would have done differently?

I am proudest of my publications, these are a great way to get work out into the public domain … and most importantly of course … to show my mum! The publication that I am most proud of is my genome-wide profile of methylation in wheat that was published in Genome Biology. At first, this was rejected by the editors based on one of the reviewer’s comments, but I emailed the editor to argue the paper's case and in the end, they changed their minds! It was a proud moment for me and taught me a lot about not giving up too easily.

What would be your ideal research project?

A project that I have designed and gained funding myself and have dedicated time to work on. For this reason, I am applying for early career fellowships based on my own research ideas that would allow me to fund and work on my own project exclusively.

What's been your biggest challenge?

Making the jump from a postdoctoral researcher to an independent researcher with my own funding. This is something that I am currently working towards.

Who or what inspires you?

There are many scientists within EI and the wider Norwich Research park that inspire me daily. Most notably Dr Ksenia Krasileva is an inspirational female scientist who has been based at EI and will be starting as an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley, California this year. Ksenia started with a USDA NIFA Fellowship and now has her own team after being awarded a prestigious European Research Council starting grant. She highlights a successful path to independent research and is always happy to give guidance, inspiration and advice.

Laura is also handy with a sewing machine!

Laura is an aspiring dressmaker.

What do you like to do out of work?

I am a keen runner and dressmaker. When I am not working I am always looking for an excuse to make a new dress to wear … catching up with friends over cocktails is usually the winning excuse!

What are your career aspirations; where would you like to be in five-years’ time?

In five years’ time, I would like to be doing independent research. I would like to have gained funding for my own project, in the form of a fellowship or a research grant and be discovering exciting new ways to improve wheat yields!

What advice would you give to those who are interested in getting into genomics research?

You need a thick skin to do research; there will be rejections in the form of papers, fellowships and grants. However, even the most famous scientists have experienced more rejections than they can count, believe me, I have asked them! So, the real test is if you can pick yourself back up after a rejection, dust yourself off and reapply or re-submit! Research is hard work but I think it’s worth it.

Article author

Laura-Jayne Gardiner

Senior Postdoctoral Researcher