Bioinformatics career story: Henry Barton
The scientists in our bioinformatics team come from diverse research backgrounds, all having transitioned from academia to industry at different points in their careers. In 2021, we had the privilege of welcoming Henry Barton to the Genevia Technologies team. How did his journey take him from being a biology student in the UK to becoming a Scientific Project Manager at a Finnish bioinformatics company?
As an undergraduate student, Henry became interested in ancient DNA and enthusiastically delved into the topic. Although his original aspiration of pursuing a PhD in this field did not materialise, it marked the beginning of his career journey to where he is today.
– I was fascinated by the genomes of Neanderthals, and I couldn’t read enough research papers about them and other extinct hominids. This initial fascination motivated me to pursue my Master's and then PhD, he explains.
Henry's first foray into bioinformatics occurred during his Master's studies in biology at the University of Sheffield, UK. For his thesis, he studied recombination rates and their variation in avian genomes. He remained in the same group for his PhD, where his work became increasingly reliant on computational methods, to address population genetic questions relating to the fitness effects of short insertions and deletions.
– My work involved extensive computational analyses and simulations, concentrating on the evolutionary dynamics of the genome itself, rather than observable phenotypes. This was a more theoretical approach compared to the majority of my ecologist peers in the department, he elaborates.
– This led me to acquire proficiency in bioinformatics, working with extensive datasets and server-based tasks, skills which are closely aligned to what I do here at Genevia.
Following the conclusion of his PhD, Henry chose to pursue postdoctoral work, relocating to Finland and embarking on a project involving Atlantic salmon at the University of Helsinki.
– I shifted towards more applied research, which had real-world connections, rather than exclusively studying the genome itself. Despite this change in focus, I increasingly felt that the narrow specialisation prevalent in academia didn't suit me. The pursuit of one very specific research avenue left little room for exploring new directions, he reflects.
A dive into industry: joining Genevia Technologies
With his postdoc nearing its end, Henry looked for a non-academic position, and ended up joining the bioinformatics team at Genevia Technologies.
Henry has been fortunate to discover that the industry role offers him what was lacking in academia: more freedom to explore new avenues and a permanent contract. Apart from the diverse nature of his work, he appreciates the collaborative atmosphere, contributing to the strategic planning of a small company's future. He also finds time for personal pursuits like mine diving and cycling. His responsibilities at Genevia extend beyond customer projects, and encompass the management, upgrading, and future-proofing of our high performance computing environment.
When asked about his preferred projects at Genevia, he highlights those with the best learning opportunities:
– The most demanding projects have also been the most enriching in terms of learning. It's a mixture of challenges and rewards. I'm drawn to coding-intensive projects that require me to acquire new skills.
– What I relish most about my current role is its diversity. There's ample room to engage with a diverse range of tasks. When a client project necessitates unfamiliar expertise, we learn and adapt. If the company holds experience that I lack, I'm supported by colleagues who are more than willing to help. In academia, personal career pressures sometimes hinder collaboration, but here, teamwork takes precedence, he notes.
Advice for aspiring bioinformaticians
Despite his contentment with an industry job, Henry values the skills and insights gained during his time in academia. He advises aspiring bioinformaticians to cultivate a versatile skill set and identify transferable abilities:
– The value of your academic training might not be obvious until you step outside the academic environment. Many struggle to see how their skills translate into a different setting.
– A solid foundation in coding and data analysis is a great example of transferable expertise. With the right toolkit, you can adapt to specific biological (or non-biological) contexts. While a background in biology remains crucial, focus on skills applicable across domains. Proficiency in HPC environments, coding languages like R and Python, and familiarity with a range of bioinformatic tools positions you well.
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