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Women in Computing: bioinformatics

We interview Vanessa Bueno of the Saunders Group, who is a predoctoral student working on wheat yellow rust.

August 03, 2016

For our second installment of our ‘Women in Computing’ series, we interview Vanessa Bueno of the Saunders Group, who is a predoctoral student working on wheat yellow rust.

Vanessa gives us a very entertaining and informative insight into her computing world.

What does computing mean to you?

As I see it, computers were developed to accomplish everything that humans cannot (or cannot be bothered to) do. Therefore, I would define computing as a way of achieving goals that are too time-consuming or tiring to be carried out by a human being.

Technically, computing involves any task that is done through a computer, so we could say that people do computing more than they think, right?

Why do you love computing?

I don’t think you can explain why you like something you like. I find computing very entertaining and interesting. There are a lot of things you can do and most important: there are no boundaries. Although a lot of people would disagree with that statement, I think computing is something you can easily learn by yourself, it doesn’t take a lot of money and it can change the way you see the world.

What got you into computing?

In my case, it was meant to be. My father has a software company so I very soon developed a genuine interest in computers. It became my hobby and used to spend hours playing with my computer. Afterwards, I decided to turn my hobby into my job.

Who or what is your main inspiration in the computing world?

Honestly, I do not have a single inspiration. ‘The computing world’ exists thanks to the hard work of not just one person, but many people. I find inspiration in every single person who contributes in any way to it. Likewise, I am interested in different aspects of computing, not just one!

Getting into computing

Thinking of learning a second language? Coding might be your best bet. The world of computing, rather than being dull and overly-complicated, is like learning how to compose a beautiful symphony but instead of writing notes, you write code.

The ability to program a computer is one of the most useful skills in the modern world. Yet, when compared to life sciences, it has less uptake - especially among young women. Many of us imagine computer science to be a complex and highly mathematical endeavour, with years of experience necessary from a young age to become a programmer.

How do you rate your chances of beating IBM’s Watson in a game of Jeopardy?

0%.

When the robots take over, how will you help silence our machine overlords?

What do you mean silence? Hopefully I will be leading them to take over the world (but just to make the world a better place).

What would your supercomputing power be?

I have always dreamed of, one day, being able to program like a master in Java… One day.

What brought you to EI?

EI has outstanding facilities for someone who works in bioinformatics. There is a great science community here and it is very easy to collaborate with others.

What are you working on currently?

I am working in a wheat pathogen, Puccinia striiformis f. sp tritici (PST). This pathogen (also called Wheat Yellow Rust) is infecting wheat all around the world, and in my group (Saunders’ lab) we study its population to understand how it is evolving. In ‘computing’ words, I work with RNA-seq data, and population genomics.

Spotlight on wheat yellow rust

Throughout history one of the most significant threats to wheat production has been the infamous rust pathogens that can cause loss of an entire crop if left untreated. Here in the UK in the last decade, wheat yellow rust disease has re-emerged as a major constraint on agriculture and continues to pose a major threat to wheat production worldwide.

The causal agent is a fungus called Puccinia striiformis f. sp. tritici (PST) that can cause significant reductions in both grain quality and yield in susceptible wheat cultivars. In the last decade, new PST strains have emerged that are capable of adapting to warmer temperatures, can infect a wider selection of wheat varieties, and are more aggressive than previously characterised strains leading to wide scale epidemics.

N64 or Playstation?

Playstation!! I still have the PS1 and loads of games.

Qubits or binary?

01000010 01101001 01101110 01100001 01110010 01111001

Windows, Mac, or Linux?

I grew up with Windows, then swapped to Linux, and now I work with Mac. My only conclusion is: I don’t understand people who say that Mac is the best operating system.

Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing?

Ada Lovelace. She proved that we should stop thinking that “girls can’t code” or that computing is just for boys.

Spotlight on Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) was an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer.

Source: wikipedia.org

What’s your favourite coding language and why?

Python. Objectively, I first learnt the basics by myself and then had a great teacher who made me love it. I have used others, but I feel more comfortable with Python, and I believe it is easier to learn than other programming languages.

Subjectively, Python is the best programming language and if you disagree, you’re wrong.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the world of computing?

Do not believe the stereotypes. Computing is not for nerds, not for guys. Computing is for people who like computing, that’s it. Even if it was not your childhood dream, once you start you might discover it is what you want to do the rest of your life. You just need to give it a go. That would be my advice.

Ah, and use Google. Google will be your best friend.

Finally, what do you think lies ahead in the future of computing?

There are a lot of fields that will evolve in an incredible way due to computing. I am particularly interested in computational neuroscience and information processing. I believe there is still a long way to go.

One of the ultimate goals is to be able to simulate the human brain or even save human memories into a computer. This is an area that is currently being developed very quickly and I am definitely looking forward to it!

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager

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