We live in a world inundated with all kinds of data; and hidden within these vast troves of data are key nuggets of information that can help scientists answer several research questions.
Santhi Ramachandran, our next pathbreaker, Scientific Curator at the European Bioinformatics Institute, curates human genome data for the GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Studies) Catalog.
Santhi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how the role of a scientific curator helps in organizing and structuring the data in a format that is useful to the scientific research community !
For students, if you enjoy reading about science and translating the data into meaningful information, then this role is tailormade for you !
Santhi, can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Kerala. My parents are both graduates and were working in a private company. From my high school days, I developed a liking for biology and languages. I was not a fan of Maths and didn’t develop any interest in the same. After I completed my 10th I was not sure what I wanted to do, but since all my friends wanted to become either an Engineer or a Doctor, I also wanted the same. But as I didn’t like Maths, I thought I could become a doctor. But the journey was hard. I went for private tuition for entrance exam coaching. It affected my grades in school. I was not ready to accept that I was not meant to be a doctor. My teachers advised me to drop the private tuition, which I did in the middle of my 12th std. I completed my 12th with a very low percentage. The next question was what to do next? I thought of taking up Biotechnology as it was one of the chapters in my school that I liked. So I applied for Biotechnology in a good college near my home and since my percentage was low, I was the last to be admitted to the course. From there, I started my journey.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I am a post graduate in Biotechnology. I also did my graduation in Biotechnology.
What were some of the influences that paved your way for such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I can’t say that I chose this career. After my post graduation the next option was to either pursue a PhD or look for a job. But I was not prepared mentally for a PhD, so I started looking for a job. There was an internship offered by the Department of Biotechnology for fresh post-graduates. I attended the interview and landed my first job. After 6 months of internship I got a job at the same place. The work was in a dry lab. After 1 year of working there I started looking for other jobs. I applied for a job which mentioned “Scientific Curator”. I had no idea what it was. I applied and went for an interview. I got the job. One key factor I believe that helped me in getting this job, apart from my academic knowledge, or my previous experience, was my obsession for reading. A curator has to read a lot and I can read anything fast.
Tell us about your career path
I started my career in Shodhaka where I was mainly working on categorizing and testing various resources used for Next Generation Sequencing for a portal named Startbioinfo. This was a part of my DBT training and I continued to do the same work here. Along with that, I have conducted various workshops for students and scientists on Next Generation Sequencing.
In my next job at Biobase Databases India Pvt Ltd., my role started as Curator for a Pharmacogenomics Mutation Database. Pharmacogenomics aims to tailor medical treatment to each person or to a group of people. Pharmacogenomics looks at how your DNA affects the way you respond to drugs. My work mainly involved curating scientific articles related to Pharmacogenomics. I was also involved in training new curators. I was also responsible for delivery issues, by fixing bugs during quality control process.
Can you explain your role as a Scientific Curator?
Curation involves collecting the necessary data from scientific articles in the format needed and formulated by the requirements of each project, and depositing it in the database. The challenge is that you have certain pre-conditions that are necessary for the data to be captured for the database. Sometimes the scientific articles would be straight forward and you can easily capture the data. But sometimes the articles may be so confusing that you need to use your knowledge and skills to see how efficiently the data can be captured. Corporate companies would always have certain targets that need to be achieved in terms of quality and quantity.
Drug intervention is a part of the Pharmacogenomics project that I did. The project was about identifying variants/mutations that may influence a particular phenotype in presence of a drug, from scientific articles.
Biobase was acquired by Qiagen and the project I mentioned above was disintegrated as there was a similar project already in the company. After the project was closed I worked in a similar project in Qiagen. Qiagen is a German company which provide samples needed for scientific labs and also has a data science practice area which involves curation for many databases.
My next role at Excelra was the same as that in Biobase. Excelra is a data science company based in Hyderabad . Here also I was involved in reading scientific articles and capturing the required information. The difference is the kind of paper you read and the way you capture your data which varies from project to project. Excelra delivers curation services for multiple biomarker types from pre-clinical, clinical, and exploratory phases associated with different therapeutic areas for the GOBIOM database
Apart from curation, here I was also involved in training curators, and assisting the recruitment team. I was also one of the 3 members who were responsible in quality control work for curation for a 30 members team.
How did you get your first break?
There was an internship offered by the Department of Biotechnology for fresh post graduates. I attended the interview and landed my first job.
I have been working as a curator from my 2nd job. Though the projects vary, the role is the same, which is curation. As my experience has grown, the type of work assigned to me has also expanded. After almost 10 years of working, I conduct interviews, give training, and interact with the users of the database/tools that our company has developed. Basically, a person with a post-graduation can get a job as a curator. But outside India, curators are mostly people who have a PhD. But not every life science post-graduate can do this work. I have seen people who struggle with curation but excel in other life science jobs. Good contacts can help you to get an interview, but not always.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Once I started my journey in curation, the challenge was that if you want to switch companies, there are very few companies in India which offer you this job. Outside India there are more opportunities, but the challenge there is that even if your background fits the job, there are visa and other challenges. My journey was hard. I had given tons of interviews, got rejected multiple times and finally got a job where I feel comfortable and enjoy my work.
Challenge 2: There is very little hierarchy in curation. So if you are smart and confident enough you can climb faster to the next level.
Challenge 3: Lesser opportunities.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
I work in EMBL-EBI in the UK as Scientific Curator.
EBI is an Intergovernmental organization which provides various Bioinformatics services. It is a part of European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) based in Germany.
The role of curation, as I have mentioned before, doesn’t vary much. But since this is a part of research institute there is a major difference in our approach towards work . I have worked in corporate companies in India which have tight schedules and stringent deadlines. Here it is more relaxed. The way you address a scientific problem and arrive a solution is much more organized. My role here gives me lots of opportunities to communicate with stakeholders of different projects and get inputs which helps us understand things better. We have access to senior scientists working on the campus, and engage in direct interaction with users.
Also, we are exposed to every area of the project. For eg, in India once a curator does curation, they don’t have much access to how the data is represented in the database or what the developers do. But here it is more open. We know what the developers do, though not much technically, but more of a general idea. Corporate companies, because of their policies and other reasons, do not provide such access. Also, the people working here have sound technical skills. More than 90% of people working here are scientists and come with a ton of experience. And I got this job because of my exposure and experience in different kinds of projects in India.
I am presently working with GWAS (Genome-Wide Association Studies) Catalog which curates human genome wide association studies.
What problems do you solve?
Apart from curation, I solve the problems asked by the clients or users using our database.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Mostly post graduation in life science and some programmatic skills in Unix and python can be an added advantage
What’s a typical day like?
Typical day for me is how I want to do a job or what priority I have. It is mainly based on my schedule. Sometimes some tasks have high priority, otherwise it is all up to you, how you do the job.
What is it you love about this job?
The main thing I love is reading, and my role involves a lot of reading, especially reading scientific articles on some days. I also enjoy talking to different users who use our tool. Rather than just providing data from the database, we know how users are using the data, and their input helps us think differently and work differently for the betterment of our society.
How does your work benefit society?
There is vast data available now from different scientific research articles, publications and other sources. The amount of data will grow exponentially in the future. People can use this data for the next step to conduct different types of research, but most of the time they don’t know where and how to find the required information. Scientific curators help in organizing the data which helps the scientific society. For example, if you are working on pharmacogenomics data, our work can help researchers in developing personalized medicines.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
There was a client project which came to our team which had to be completed in a very short span of time. We had very little manpower. So, we conducted the interview, gave training and worked day and night for this project. We were all exhausted by the time we delivered the project. But once the client gave good feedback and gave us the project again next year, we knew our hard work paid off. We learnt from our mistakes and performed better the 2nd time.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t lose hope if you can’t crack one interview. Keep on giving interviews. The interviews may help you a lot when the right time comes. Your CV matters. Take time and prepare your CV. It shouldn’t be more than 2 pages, nobody reads if it is longer. And don’t send the same CV to all the jobs you are applying for. Change it based on the job requirement and your experience.
I am planning to continue in this role for a few more years.