Saturday, 8 March 2014

Start(l)ing in science

International Women's Day today, so it would be remiss if The Blob didn't acknowledge it.  There are 3,500,000,000 women walking the planet and I know nothing about most of them.  That's partly because I've never been to Brazil where a lot (100ish million) of them live, but mainly its because they come from another planet. Or rather, their use and experience of our planet is very different from mine as a man.  Mervyn Peake tried to articulate this Ignorance Of The Other in Titus Alone:
I am clueless about Women but I've met a few extraordinary women in a life in science.  The first meeting hasn't always been auspicious.

About 18 years ago, the newly appointed Director (and sole employee) of the Irish National Centre for BioInformatics was approached by his Head of Department.  HoD had a problem: two young women had done extraordinarily well on their exams at the end of second year in college. It was really important to him that they did not end up completing their degree in The Other Department. So we must make Our Department look more interesting, dynamic and attractive than the (absurd, posturing, second-rate) rivals across the car-park.  I agreed,with a sinking feeling, to take on one of these women for six weeks that summer and pay her out of a slush fund that I had squirrelled away. HoD took on the other. I think, like Best and Clark, they may have drawn straws.

When "my" intern turned up on the first Monday it turned out that she knew nothing about computers, next to nothing about biological sequences (sinking feeling plummets) . . . but she seemed willing to learn and capable of hard work (feeling gets hint of buoyancy).  My grand plan was to write a Manual for Bioinformatics, to make my job as a facilitator of database access and teacher of molecular sequence evolution easier.  To populate the pages, I needed examples from the Universe of Sequences that would best illustrate the techniques Joe Boffin would be likely to need in his research. For starters I needed a pair of Goldiloxian sequences that were similar enough to be alignable but not so similar that the alignment was trivial and uninformative.  Not addressing this problem was getting to be a full-time job for me.  So, speaking  v e r y   c l e a r l y  I explained the big picture, showed how to explore the universe of sequences and gave her a pile of reading to get started.  Believing I had give the Intern a week's work, I disappeared back into my burrow to Direct myself in the manifold tasks of starting up a National Centre.

In the early afternoon of the first day, the Intern came back having completed all the tasks I'd given her that morning as well as having a break for lunch.  It was clear that I, in my Human Resources hat, had seriously underestimated the available personnel.  It went on like that for four weeks.  I'd set out a doughty task-list; Intern would ask a couple of telling questions, go away to fulfill the stated tasks and then proceed to extend and embellish them.  At the end of the month, she had not only found all the worked examples, she had also written the Manual although I think it was the first time she'd ever used a word-processor.  For some reason I was absurdly impressed that each chapter title appeared in a shadowed box - it made it look so very professional. I was exhausted and had nothing left for her to do, so I lent her to a colleague. Within a week she had solved an intractable software problem that had baffled a lab-full of post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers. That Intern was Aoife McLysaght who went on to become a geneticistresearcher, communicator, broadcaster, activist, teacher and a great role-model for young women in science. это день матери в России: Эта женщина является матерью тоже. I have no idea where the energy comes from, but I've encountered something similar before. 

Back in August 1996, did we give her the last week off?  I hope so, she deserved a holiday with pay.   The Manual we she wrote inevitably came to be called As Easy as ABC or Aoife's Bioinformatics Course and I put in a lot of train miles hawking it and the associated training course round the Island.  Later I put in a lot of air-miles taking it abroad and ran the five day course for which it was the backbone in Norway, Finland, Turkey and South Africa.  Her contribution thus helped some hundreds of bio-scientists make a better fist of understanding the evolutionary context of their research.  Clearly I owe her a lot too.

Bonnets off!

1 comment:

  1. What an appropriate tribute! Well spoken, well deserved.