Bioinformatics career story: Grigorios Georgolopoulos
During the recent years, multiple new talents have joined Genevia Technologies’ bioinformatics team. One of them is Grigorios Georgolopoulos, who joined us as a Scientific Project Manager in late 2021. Here, he shares his story of converting from a wet-lab scientist to a computational biologist, and from academia to industry.
Lineage reprogramming: from benchtop to laptop
Due to the field's interdisciplinary nature, career paths in bioinformatics are diverse and sometimes quite unpredictable! Our project manager Grigorios's journey through the landscape of omics-intensive research in academia and industry is one of those typically unique stories.
After finishing a Master’s degree in biology, Grigorios moved on to work on his PhD on transcription factors and chromatin accessibility in hematopoiesis, or blood cell development. His aim was to integrate modalities of chromatin accessibility, transcription and gene expression in order to figure out how transcription factors cooperate with the DNA during human blood cell differentiation, and how this interplay affects the change from primitive cells with no identity to eventually being red blood cells. Grigorios describes his PhD as one of the highlights of his career: while through most of it he identified as a wet-lab scientist, it’s also when the spark for bioinformatics ignited.
– It’s now published work – I really enjoyed doing it, and it’s where most of my experience stems from, so I have to say it’s my favorite work from my overall academic career, he says.
Midway through his PhD at the Altius Institute in Seattle, Grigorios was working with gene regulation, and generating a lot of data on genomics, chromatin accessibility, and transcriptomics. The work was intensive, and while he was behind the bench, he slowly found himself more and more fascinated by the analysis of the data he was producing.
– Back then, my own bioinformatics skills were confined to some very limited R commands, and usually I would just open an Excel sheet. But when the data started to become too big to be loaded on a spreadsheet, I got impatient and thought that I’ll just try and find more efficient ways to analyze it.
– Thankfully, the lab had many dedicated bioinformaticians, and those guys were an inspiration to me. I really looked up to them and was fascinated by all the tools they were using and things they could do, and I realized that I wanted to do the same things myself. However, I was too shy and afraid to ask for their advice, which I now realize was nonsense. On the other hand, if you’re thrown in the middle of the ocean, you just have to learn how to swim, and I guess that’s how I got into this bioinformatics thing, he describes.
There were many different aspects that attracted Grigorios to move from wet-lab work to the analysis side. He finds bioinformatics in a way easier and cheaper. For example, making a mistake in an experiment using expensive reagents can cost a lot of money, while in bioinformatics it’s only a waste of time. In addition, he was fascinated by the fact that in data analysis the results were all the time just a few keystrokes away, contrary to the long waiting times to see the fruits of your work in the wet lab.
– I didn’t really plan it, but as the time went on, I found myself spending more time on the computer than behind the bench. I guess people around me also started to see me more as a bioinformatician, which I still didn’t think of myself as I didn’t have the formal training.
It was not until his postdoc that Grigorios realized that he clearly was no longer a wet-lab biologist. He was working on gene regulation in early human embryonic development, and with a lot of single-cell assays, the work was getting more and more computationally intensive. Around the same time, he started to grow tired of pursuing an academic career.
– Eventually I was spending most of my time doing the analysis, so it was quite natural for me to start seeking an actual bioinformatician role. As a sort of a work of fate, I also started to think that maybe committing to an academic career and all the sacrifices it takes were not for me after all. I was overcommitting to work and couldn’t keep up with both family and career, so I started to look for non-academic jobs, and crossed paths with Genevia back in the summer of 2021.
What’s life at Genevia like for Grigorios
The first year as a part of Genevia’s production team has offered new challenges and taught a lot. Grigorios says that one of the most remarkable things about his current position is to get to work with so many different people, projects and data sets. However, it can also be a great challenge.
– People trust you with their money and have expectations. Perhaps a student has failed to do their analyses or they’ve run out of time, and they come to you for help and expect you to deliver fast and in high quality. Down the road, it’s still a huge asset – I’ve dealt with so much different data and different analyses that it’s like I’ve added three postdocs to my CV, Grigorios smiles. What’s equally valuable, is the fact that dealing with different client personalities really helps you develop soft skills like communication, a rare skill especially for an often solitary profession like bioinformatics.
He tells about two different projects that he’s found especially interesting during his time at Genevia. The first one was for a Finnish clinician-researcher interested in mutational signatures in different types of cancer.
– As my background is in genome regulation, chromatin dynamics, and how it affects cell lineages, this topic was certainly new to me. I really enjoyed helping him to write the paper. He wants the papers written very fast and is relying a lot on the data from our side, so I’ve also found it interesting to see this very different way of writing papers compared to my past academic experiences.
Another project close to his heart has been with an Austrian group studying the JAK-STAT signaling network. This group was interested in how a specific transcription factor alters chromatin dynamics and further affects the cells’ fate and behavior.
– This was a great project with a lot of data, and the customers have been very happy about the collaboration so far. My expertise overlapped with their interests, and I took great joy in helping them. We brought a few innovations tailored specifically to this project like, for example, a customized method to concatenate ChIP-seq peaks from multiple samples into a consensus list. We generated a lot of data and beautiful figures, and now we’re helping them put together an upcoming paper. It’s still in the making but I am already very happy for and proud of them, it’s a wonderful piece of work.
More than just bioinformatics
– I’ve really expanded my expertise and grown together with Genevia during this time. Our bioinformatics team is a group of around ten people, and whenever we get together we have a great time. If I run into issues that are beyond my expertise, I can easily turn to one of my colleagues and even get hands-on help from them. We also get really great support from our management team. Our Chief Research Officer Maria always has our back if we have a tough situation with a customer, for example.
– Given that we are a relatively small team, it also gives some wiggle room to do other things as well: I can join the sales meetings with Antti or Thomas from the business team, for example, and learn more about the sales process of this kind of service. It’s different than selling a product – you have to convince people about your expertise, which is really new to me, and I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to do that too in addition to my regular bioinformatics project manager work.
Outside of work and science, Grigorios enjoys spending time with his family and friends, taking bike rides on the beautiful waterfront of his hometown Thessaloniki where he is stationed, and playing basketball, for instance. In addition, he is a coffee enthusiast and, as he puts it, likes to make a fuss in the kitchen.
– I like trying new things and cooking is one of my favorite pastime activities. I actually think that figuring out new recipes and trying international cuisines and recreating them is pretty much like bioinformatics. If I see a nice figure or a new analysis I want to try and do it myself. I might fail at first, but I eventually learn to do it.
Grigorios concludes with some words to bioinformaticians at the beginning of their career in industry:
– Bioinformatics is a skill that you develop continuously. When I first started, I was all the time comparing myself to much more experienced people, and blown away by their skills and all the different tools and languages they were using, while I was only average at R. But it’s all something you’ll learn with time. This job has given me so many opportunities to expand my expertise and toolkit. What senior bioinformaticians always say is don’t be afraid to Google. There are basically three steps: 1. Google, 2. Try, 3. Go back to step 1, and that’s how you’ll improve. You don’t need to stress on whether you have this amplitude of skills; it’s something that you’ll acquire naturally as long as you are willing to dip your feet into unknown water and step out of your comfort zone. If you’re willing to learn, you will learn, so don’t worry about the skills that you haven’t acquired yet and try to be confident with what you already have. So all in all, I would advise young bioinformaticians to be open to trying new things. Trust the learning process!
Passed the Fisher's test. Off the coast of Samothrace, around 2016.
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