Dr Vera Kaiser on the importance of good methods for analysing mountains of data

She talks about using computational approaches to integrate and extract information from data sets, the thrill of being the first person to see your data in a new light, and catching earthworms late at night in a random field in Germany.

Vera studied Zoology at the University of Edinburgh and, after a short research stint in Sweden, returned to Edinburgh to complete a PhD in evolutionary genetics. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley (still working on sequence evolution) and returned to Edinburgh in 2013 to work on human genetics. She is now a bioinformatician in the Human Genetics Department at the IGC, working on chromatin structure and function in Colin Semple's group.


Could you briefly summarise your work?

I am interested in the basic properties of the genome, i.e., its organisation, folding, and regulation, as well as mutational processes and their relation to cancer and other diseases. I use computational approaches to integrate and extract information from datasets of sequence variations, chromatin states, and phenotypic information, in order to understand the mutational patterns that impact on the functioning of the genome and its response to perturbation.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

My research aims to find out how the structure of the genome is related to its propensity to mutations and diseases. Thus, it contributes to our understanding of the fundamental properties of the genome and mutational processes, and has direct implications to translational aspects in terms of our understanding of phenotypic variation, cancer, and developmental disorders.

What are the major challenges in your field?

I think it's really important to have good methods for analysing the mountains of data we face! It's great that there is so much genetic information - down to the single cell level - but all that is of no use if there are no good computational methods to integrate all that information and remove any bias in the data. Fortunately, there are many smart people working on this so that new biological insights can be gained.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I think there’s a scientist in each and every one of us – it doesn’t require much inspiration! Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to too much science beyond the regular subjects at school and my plan had never been to come a “scientist” as such. But it ended up being what I was most interested in when leaving school, and so I went for it – and never looked back…

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

I like the challenge of figuring out "how to" do new analysis - it's very satisfying when something actually works. Also, it's quite a privilege to know that you're the first to see your data in this new light.

The only thing I don't like so much about my job is that I spend almost all day sitting down - that can't be good for anyone...

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I think it would be interesting to meet scientists who lived in very different times and places than we do (think: ancient Egypt or the Mayas). Communication problems aside, it would be very nice to talk about how they did their science and what questions kept them up at night.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

I am sure other people have done more unusual things than I have (since I am not a field biologist!), but what comes to mind is catching earthworms late at night in a random field in Germany. That was during my undergrad, though, so it was a long time ago...

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

I would probably be a musician in a symphony orchestra.

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

I would say: go for it if you are interested!

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

Climate change is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today - along with overpopulation and the threat of nuclear weapons... There really is a lot to sort out! However, it seems that we've understood what's going on - and, more importantly, that we've to act on this knowledge...

Related Links

Dr Vera Kaiser profile

Colin Semple Research Group