Celebrating women’s achievements for International Women’s Day: Ana’s story
March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD). For Hub Manager Ana Toribio, it’s essential to have a variety of voices addressing research and indeed global challenges: “We must encourage more women to work in research but also listen to them in order to develop the environment they need to stay in research and thrive.”
Ana Toribio, Stratified Medicine Core Laboratory Next Generation Sequencing (SMCL NGS) Hub Manager
Originally from Uruguay, Ana moved to Europe to complete the experimental work of her Master’s in Paris and then a PhD in Cambridge – 19 years later, she’s still here!
Before joining SMCL, Ana worked at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton and as a consultant for start-ups.
What is your job, and can you explain what you do day-to-day?
Day-to-day, SMCL NGS Hub supports researchers in Cambridge in designing and implementing their genomics projects, no matter how small or large; the projects we work on range from those with very few precious samples, sometimes even only one or two, to projects with many thousands of samples.
After we receive an enquiry (usually by email), we generally meet with the researchers to understand their needs and design the sequencing experiments together to achieve their scientific goals. We help researchers implement their genomics projects by providing our equipment, technologies, and, most importantly, the expertise SMCL NGS Hub has developed over many years. We extract DNA or RNA from clinical samples like blood, saliva, faeces and tissue extracted during surgeries, and others, prepare a broad range of libraries for sequencing, do in-house sequencing, and finally analyse the data. We tailor our support to the project’s needs; thus, we can provide support at any individual step of the pipeline, as needed. We also provide support before a grant application.
I have the privilege of leading a fantastic team totally committed to each genomics project we take on. It is also part of my job to select the projects we take on. We have an increasing demand from international partners from academia and industry. Still, most of our customers are Cambridge researchers based on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. SMCL specialises in translational genomics projects, with a particular focus on those associated with the East Genomic Medicine Service (GMS). In my role, I work closely with the East GMS to ensure the effective translation of technology and the integration of new sequencing methodologies, facilitating and accelerating research in genomic medicine.
Why did you want to work in research?
As a child, I was inspired by two books: the classic Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif and a biography of Marie Curie. I grew up on a cape, very close to the beach. I dreamed of knowing everything about all the animals I could see on the beach, the shells we could see in the sand, their composition, shapes and evolution, and what all those colours in the rocks meant.
I have always loved learning and discovery, so research came naturally as a career option. I also have a practical approach that made me highly interested in translational research, moving discoveries made in the lab into practical applications that can improve human health. In addition, I particularly enjoy the collaborative and interdisciplinary aspects of translational research involving scientists from many different disciplines, including biology, chemistry, engineering, and medicine.
How did you get involved in research?
As a student in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Uruguay, I had the opportunity to work on a funded research project to study the metabolic pathways of anaerobic microorganisms. The fundamental research principles I learned in that group were key to my whole career, and I’m profoundly grateful to them for all the training they provided me with.
I have always liked instruments, and I today enjoy working with sequencers, having closely followed the development of sequencing technologies from when I first arrived at the Sanger Institute, Hinxton, in 2004. Sequencing brings together fascinating areas: the optics of the instruments, the physics and chemistry of microfluidics, the chemistry of the sequencing and the computational analysis, all to study the biology of genes.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Of course, Cambridge has been an extraordinary opportunity, and an adventure. But the highlight of my career has been the fantastic people I have worked and learned with – no doubt about it. Fortunately, the list is long! They are colleagues, mentors, and friends.
Why is research important?
Research is essential because it helps us to better understand the world around us and to find solutions to problems. The benefits of scientific research are too numerous to list and are responsible for many technological advances that have improved our quality of life.
Genomics is poised to revolutionise medicine, making it more personalised and precise. Genomics research has improved the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases, including cancer and autoimmune diseases. I feel it is a privilege to work in this field in this era.
Why is International Women’s Day important?
If we want all individuals to develop as human beings, irrespective of gender, or any other aspect of our being, it is vital to take a moment – March 8th in this case – to stop and reflect together on these issues on how to keep working, layer by layer, on these issues, ensuring the coming generations progressively have a much more peaceful, inclusive, healthy, productive and joyful society.
Why is it important for more women to work in research?
A recent article from UNESCO highlights that women make up less than a third of researchers worldwide. This lack of diversity is a problem, as it can lead to a lack of perspective and innovative thinking. If we want to address global challenges, it is crucial to have a variety of voices at the table. We must encourage more women to work in research but also listen to them in order to develop the environment they need to stay in research and thrive, with equitable access to the career ladder and remuneration.
What advice would you give someone who wants to have a career in research?
First, ask yourself if you are passionate about learning and discovery. If the answer is yes, then you have what is needed for research. Second, listen to your heart to choose the subject that captivates and motivates you since research will make you take on many challenges. Finally, consciously develop a critical thinking and problem-solving approach when you work. That, together with solid communication skills to communicate complex ideas effectively, will help you a lot along the way. Lastly, please always remember to be kind. We need to embed kindness in science to achieve better outcomes for all.