Bioinformatics career story: Joana Viana
Our Scientific Project Manager Joana Viana joined Genevia Technologies in 2022. She became instantly an integral part of our team, providing her bioinformatics expertise particularly in the areas of epigenetics and neuroscience. We called Joana to Lisbon, where she lives, and interviewed her about her career and passion for bioinformatics.
The making of a bioinformatician
Joana’s career traces back to her undergraduate studies in molecular and cell biology in Lisbon. Following this strongly lab-based degree, she wanted to explore human physiology further, particularly the brain, and moved to the UK to pursue a Master’s in neuroscience at King’s College London. During her Master’s project, psychiatric epigenetics piqued her interest, and she decided to continue on the topic in the same research group. She spent the following years at the University of Exeter, where the lab had relocated, finding her way into bioinformatics while working towards her PhD.
– I did my PhD in genomics, or more specifically, epigenetics and transcriptomics of schizophrenia. At the time, we didn’t have a bioinformatician in the group, so I spent half of my time in the lab doing the experiments, and then the rest of the time I spent learning how to analyze the data I had produced – and I loved it, she says.
The PhD led to many side projects, but the main goal was to identify the epigenetic signatures of schizophrenia in the brain. While extensive research efforts had been put into understanding the genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia through genome-wide association studies, other factors, such as the environment, had remained less explored, despite their known effects.
– We had a large collection of post-mortem brain samples from brain banks around the world, from different brain regions of schizophrenia patients and control subjects. I was using the best technology we had at that time to characterize the epigenetic landscape of the samples, Joana elaborates.
In terms of epigenetics, the project didn't yield the results she had hoped for, but it provided valuable insights into the limitations of epigenome-wide studies in heterogeneous samples. Not only did the challenges with the epigenetic data spark the next project within the group, but they also laid the foundation for Joana’s knowledge on DNA methylation, which then became a significant part of her subsequent career.
– I really enjoyed my PhD time. I took ownership of the project and had great freedom to take it in whichever direction I wanted. I was in a very good group working with fantastic people from whom I learned a lot. I think I was very nourished as a scientist: I had all the tools I needed to thrive, and I could learn what I wanted to learn and develop what I wanted to develop, she shares.
After completing her PhD, Joana did a one-year postdoc before being awarded a UK Medical Research Council fellowship. She worked on the epigenomics of brain development and did both the wet lab experiments and analyzed the data herself, becoming familiar with a variety of data types, tools, and programming languages.
– What I love about bioinformatics is that it gives you great power to extract biological meaning from experiments. You can use a range of tools to ask the questions you want to ask of the data, and if those tools don’t exist, you can develop them – just go and write your own software to do exactly what you want.
– In R, which is the language I still use the most, I’m completely self-taught. When I started doing RNA-Seq, I took a couple of courses, but when it comes to coding, it has been me and Google alone, she laughs.
– Think about learning a programming language like learning any language. If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it. Practice a lot: if you have to make a figure, for example, don’t make it the easy way you already know but use the language you’re learning. Use the resources available to us nowadays; we have Google and a great online community to ask questions. I really believe everyone can do it: practice and be persistent, and if you enjoy it, just keep going.
From academia to industry
Towards the end of her fellowship, Joana decided to change direction and give industry a try. For a year, she worked for a startup in London before joining Genevia Technologies. Now, after nearly a year on the team, she’s already worked on a wide range of projects with various clients, harnessing her strengths and broadening her skill set.
– I’ve had many projects related to DNA methylation, and it has been really helpful to bring the knowledge from my research background to the company. Those are the projects I think I’ve enjoyed the most: I’ve felt comfortable doing them and known exactly what I’m doing. Then again, the other projects have felt equally interesting in a different way. Of course, I used my skills in those as well, but I’ve also had a lot to learn from my colleagues. We pull people from the team as needed to provide their expertise, and I’m learning a lot, which is great, she explains.
– I think my wet lab experience helps me a lot in this job: I understand where the data comes from. If there’s something weird with the data, I can think back to what could have happened in the lab to make it look like that. I can think about the chemistry, the way the sequencing libraries were prepared, the kits and how they work, mix-ups, and confounding effects that might have happened – I’ve done it so many times in the lab myself.
Joana enjoys managing projects, working with the data, and discussing results with clients. Additionally, she has found her experience at Genevia great in many other ways as well; she even says that it has exceeded all her expectations.
– I love the team. Everyone is extremely nice and helpful, and even though some of us work remotely and in different countries, I feel great proximity to everyone. The management is incredible, and the way the company is run and the transparency of it all are fantastic.
– I also enjoy my free time a lot. I like knitting, crocheting, sewing, doing crafts, and learning new things. I dance salsa and forró and love going out and taking dance classes with people. That is another thing that I love about Genevia, that everyone’s free time and work-life balance are respected and protected.
To those exploring Genevia’s website, Joana has two more things to say:
– If you’re thinking of working for Genevia: send in your CV, and hopefully, it will be a match. If you’re thinking of starting a project with us, make sure to involve us in the early stages!
Bioinformatics — snow laughing matter.
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