Computational biologist: Dr Andrew Steele
Dr Andrew Steele
Computational biologist in the Luscombe Lab at the Francis Crick Institute, London
Length of career:
Mathematics, statistics and computing are at the heart of all modern science. Those skills have enabled me to move from physics to biology, and are a strong foundation for research in any field.
Career in brief:
After my undergraduate MPhys in Physics at Oxford University, I started a PhD in magnetism and superconductivity in 2007. I used a technique called muon-spin relaxation, which involves firing particles called muons into various different materials to understand more about the materials’ properties. This provided me with a strong mathematical and computational background to continue my research career.
It was after this that I decided I wanted to work in biology because I wanted to study ageing. Ageing is by far the most pressing humanitarian problem of our time; it’s responsible for more disease, suffering and death around the world than anything else. We also know that there are things we can do about it: interventions which can make animals biologically younger and healthier, at less risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease.
I tried to work out how my skillset could best be used in biology, and decided that computational biology, and genomics in particular, was the best fit. It makes use of my numeracy and computational skills, and allows me to tackle big biological questions.
I did a short postdoc at King’s College London in a lab working on the ageing process in nematode worms, and then I was offered my current research fellowship at the Crick, where I have been for the last three years. We work on a diverse range of problems from DNA to RNA, cancer to neurodegeneration. We also have a wide range of different backgrounds, from biologists new to programming, to people like me who are more like programmers new to biology! It’s a great environment where we all learn from one-another, and look at these huge, complex problems from a variety of different perspectives.
I spend my days:
Most of my day is actually spent like many people in a normal office job, sat at a computer. However, there’s usually a lot of fascinating data on the monitor! I’m usually somewhere in the process of reading in data, cleaning it up and using statistical techniques to work out the biological meaning behind it. There’s also lots of reading papers, preparing and giving talks, and attending lectures, workshops and conferences too.
I also do a lot of science communication, so some of my days are a bit more unusual: I might spend one giving talks to hundreds of students, or another up in a hot air balloon explaining how high altitude can affect your body.
It was genuinely exciting to be an author on my first paper as a biologist — an indication that, while there’s always going to be more to learn, I’d made the transition! From my prior physics career, it was a definite highlight to see a paper from someone totally unrelated to my group in Oxford making use of the software I’d written and the new analysis technique I developed. It’s great to be able to give something back to the science community and it’s a vote of confidence when people actually use it!
I’ve not formally studied biology since school, so the learning curve has been incredibly steep! However, I and others who have made this transition am a walking example that it’s possible to change field. And, in spite of still occasionally making a fool of myself, it’s an incredibly rewarding move to have made.
I still wonder if:
It’s very hard to know if I’d have been better off studying biology rather than physics! On the one hand, I’d obviously know a lot more about biology, but on the other I come to these problems with a different viewpoint and skills to a trained biologist, and I hope that’s an asset.
Skills I consider most valuable:
To do this job, you need to understand maths, computing and biology. Very few people are experts in all three of those skills, even after a PhD, but I’ve done OK so far with two out of three!
I am inspired by:
I am largely driven by humanitarian goals. I want to do research which will improve people’s lives around the world, and that’s my main source of motivation. It’s also important to have something which motivates you day-to-day when you’re stuck trying to sort out some annoying data issue! For me, that’s problem solving: I really enjoy getting to grips with new topics, or trying to work out how best to analyse a new dataset, because the intellectual challenge is fun.
Words of wisdom:
Don’t be put off by advice about what a conventional career path or permissible field change looks like. There are obviously things you can’t do with a certain background but they’re surprisingly few in number if you’re determined!
I’m planning to carry on as a researcher, and move towards research questions with more direct relevance to ageing. I also plan to carry on talking about science and science funding, because I want to communicate to the widest possible audience the importance of science, investing in research and ageing research in particular.
Scienceogram UK, Andrew’s website about science funding
Correct as of: July 2018.