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The Beachcomber

By July 21, 2017 No Comments

judith-conroy-profileAn Interview with Research Programme Manager, Judith Conroy, by Eimear Doyle.

I talk to Judith Conroy, our resident geneticist, about moving beaches, digging for bodies in the bogs…and death beds…honestly, it’s all in a day’s work!

Tell me about yourself and your background?

I’m a geneticist. I started in the academic world; a degree in Human Genetics in Trinity followed by a Ph.D. in Neuropsychiatric genetics, specialising in Autism.

Why Autism?

I wanted the biggest challenge. The brain. I wanted to work hard for something, and the brain needs a lot of work! I loved it.

And both of my parents are teachers so I thought I should apply to do a H.Dip. When I finished the Ph.D., I applied and got a place. So I taught for a year and it was brilliant; so much fun. It was a large secondary school in West Dublin. I don’t think I could teach in a national school — “Miss, somebody pushed me!” — that sort of challenge! But when you’re teaching a teenager and can see it in their faces that they finally understand — that’s an amazing experience and really worth while. And science is great because kids who find it difficult to sit still can get up and move around, do experiments — it’s interactive and very rewarding.

So how did you find yourself here at GMI?

My Ph.D. supervisor contacted me about a Post Doc position relevant to my Ph.D. study. In my research, I was looking at a single DNA marker in a number of families but this job would allow me to work with millions of markers. Wow! I couldn’t refuse it, and I was too jealous to let anyone else work with my samples; so I started working with Sean Ennis in UCD.

It was like I was trying to move a beach, tea spoon by tea spoon, and someone gave me a digger!

I’ve been here from the start at GMI. At the beginning, the company needed someone to write ethics, scientifically researching diseases, think about how to process samples, decide where samples were going to go, what you might need, etc.

Tell me about your Team here at GMI?

My team are great — definitely the coolest. We are strategically placed near the entrance so that visitors can see how hard we work!!

There is also lots of activity, lots of talking science. We are always interacting with each other. Great screens to look at. Information to exchange and discuss.

The Role that we are going to perform is going to be challenging. If we get 45,000 samples we need to be able to deal with them efficiently and effectively. We need to be prepared.

Currently, we are planning and preparing the stages, along with some research samples we are working on relating to, for example, brain tumours and rare disease families.

It is really great to work with rare disease. Recently, we identified a gene that was responsible for a child’s rare disease and the feedback from the parents is heartwarming. One father told us we’d found the grain of sand he’d been told would never be found.

When you hear someone feeding that back to you… it is both gratifying and humbling.

The Family now has a name for what is wrong. No one is to blame — they can finally get closure and peace.

Complex diseases are another challenge where there are lots of pieces of information, and the aim is to sift through it all to find the major influencers but also the minor. All of these together may help explain why one person gets a disease and another person does not.

Who is on your team?

Raony, who is a bioinformatician, deals with the Quality Control pipeline and the Irish reference genome project . Loves the challenges. Say it is impossible and he will go for it!

We work a lot with Software Development.

Simone is another bioinformatician who specialises in brain tumour and Danielle and Sam are biological scientists in rare diseases

Tell me about a typical day?
Always starts with checking emails. Lots of emails going across between 7.00- 2.00am.

Meetings with operations, the lab, IT, recruitment (my favourite)

To do list – talk to Eimear Doyle to find the right people. Tick!

In between, there are meetings, looking at papers, trying to find the best systems, best statistical approaches, bioinformatic methods, best programmes to use , good sample sets, distinguish between what does work,what doesn’t work, writing scientific documentation…

What is different about Research and Analysis here at GMI?

This work is really focused. The whole company is based on genome sample collection and analysis. We are not looking at multiple strands of biological e.g. mouse models, cell biology – at the basic heart of it, we are studying genomes. We look at different disorders, but our approach is to look at DNA and RNA, etc. Everything is about DNA. These are the backbone of the company. That is what we do.

How would you describe the culture here at GMI?

Great, friendly, cohesive; people helping each other. It’s about getting everyone focused on our one aim. Everyone has to work as part of a team to achieve it. Compared to other structures we achieve more and we achieve it is faster. If you have great ideas, you can realise them here.

If the idea is good, there are the funds and resources. That is not always the case in academia.

If you were not a scientist what would you be and why?

A teacher! Apart from that? An archaeologist – science related. I don’t do sun, so it would have to be here in Ireland– looking for bog bodies.

Desert island: who would you bring and why?
Bear Grilles – Obviously! He can get himself out of all situations – and has a film crew. So you’re on the island for a limited period and they can whisk you off in the event of an emergency.

And you can say :”Hey, Bear, you go first and I’ll follow!” Let him test the water.

What type of island do you mean? Jungle or what?

(Too many questions, Judith! Just a commoner garden type of desert island!! Like in Lost)

What would you advise young scientists about applying to GMI?

If you’re interested your interest will show through. I assume that everybody applying has the same skill set but I’d ask–What is your dream? Attitude is key. A person who is excited is a person who will work to achieve their goals. They can see themselves long term. On your death bed your grand child asks you- “Gran, what did you achieve?”

I ask people; what is your dream project? What’s yours Eimear???

I’m really not ready for this turn of the tables and talk of bog bodies…

I fumble and fudge the issue for a while but, phew, Judith really is thorough and persistent!! She’s persuaded me to be interviewed by her! No questions supplied in advance!! Hasta la vista!!!