March 28, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Meet the Beacon: Dr Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson is a Senior Research Fellow and Technologist in Bioinformatics for the Future Food Beacon. Michael handles sequencing data, data derived from the DeepSeq facility, and conducts integrative analysis. His role is to support biologists in handling the large amount of data to be produced. Michael is also responsible for the digital requirements of the Future Food Beacon. Dr Wilson joins the Beacon from the University of Leeds, having previously worked for the University of Nottingham at CPIB.

In this interview, Michael talks to Lexi Earl about what a bioinformatician does, returning to Nottingham, and his advice for young scientists. 

Tell me about your role?

As a bioinformatician I handle all the Next Gen sequencing data for the Future Food Beacon, considering our investment in the DeepSeq facility, this should be quite substantial over the coming years. I handle all the derived data from that, together with ADAC. We do the genomic analysis and identify tools or scripts or devise new approaches to analyse the data. I handle the digital requirements for the Beacon too; so talking to Dr Darren Wells about the data from sensors for the phenotyping, and lots of things like that. It is broad.

What were you doing before?

I started way back in the late 1990s at Leeds University. I did my PhD in Molecular Biology. I fell into Bioinformatics, because I did a fellowship after that where we were sequencing a gene, looking for polymorphisms in relation to heart disease. I fell in love with Bioinformatics, handling the data, looking for gene variations, processing genes… I then started an MSc in Bioinformatics at the University of Manchester and from that went to work for University of Manchester as a bioinformatician. In 2007, I joined CPIB at the University of Nottingham as a bioinformatician, supporting CPIB’s requirements for the whole of its five years. I then worked with Malcolm Bennett before moving to the University of Leeds.

What drew you back to Nottingham and the Future Food?

This place feels like home. The breadth and depth of work happening here, you are drawn into various things that peak your interest. I’ve not known a place quite like Nottingham for that.

How do you explain what you do to ordinary people?

People understand biology but they don’t really understand the scale of the data of biology. It is getting that across that is a challenge. My role is to handle things for biologists when it gets out of hand. Biology is such a broad topic and it is always, always developing, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. My role is to take the pain away from the size, and answer questions, simple questions, from complex sets of data that have been generated.

Does what you do affect ordinary people?

Bioinformatics is interesting, I always see it as the glue. It is the core of everything. We glue things together, whether it be data or scripts or just ideas. I struggle to think of a day to day thing where bioinformatics alone has played a role but bioinformatics is at the heart of most biology, even if it is not specifically mentioned. Most things that people understand, where biology has made an impact on their life whether it be understanding the human genome, understanding a crop genome, things of improving crops, feeding the world, responding to climate change, bioinformatics is at the heart of that because the questions are so broad and so vast. They can’t really be answered without somebody like me, somewhere in the chain. The things that do affect people’s lives don’t happen without bioinformatics, certainly in the last ten, fifteen years.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

The most recent thing is always the peak I think. If you’d asked me two years ago, the work we did with Dr Ute Voss on the circadian clock was the pinnacle. But they are always so different and it’s so hard to compare things. We see things as just broad strokes, and we will focus down on the detail, but we often don’t really see the whole big picture. The most recent thing has always been the biggest challenge, and the biggest reward, and that is the way it should be. The most fun I’ve had was building the Lego Hounsfield!

What does a typical day look like for you?

I start the day checking emails, then I sit down at a computer and will do a large amount of incredibly hybrid tasks, whatever is necessary. I’ll get up and talk to somebody, go see Darren Wells or Jon Atkinson, talk to people in ADAC and we will talk about what is happening, what they’re doing, and will see where things can go. It is always about talking to people, even or especially who aren’t even necessarily remotely doing what you do. It is the discoveries, the things that flow out of that, that are the most interesting parts of this job. The real breakthroughs come from people talking to each other, and you can see where your work fits in, and where you can help in and out. That is very interesting. There is no average day. What is on the screen varies so dramatically. That is what keeps me coming back, the broad variety.

Do you have any advice for others looking to go into your field?

People have different definitions of bioinformatics. It is an incredibly difficult field to stay abreast on, so I would say pick something that is interesting and stay focused on it. Somebody will be interested in that technique, that skill. This job is in a bioinformatics/analytics centre – ADAC – and supports ADAC so that if there are things where I am not necessarily the best placed person to help, I can seek out someone with that skillset, because it is such a broad school. Knowing who to talk to and finding someone who can help is important.

How does being based within Future Food help you achieve your goals?

Being in the Future Food Beacon, what is being planned, what the Future Food leaders are envisaging is going to happen in the Beacon is very much something I want to be on board with. The vision people have, the expertise they have, is incredibly exciting. The breadth and depth of what is being planned is exciting too. It is something where I think I can make a big difference, with what I’ve done in my career so far, I think I can help these people really take us forwards in new directions. It is a very exciting place to be, and a position to be in.

Posted in Food ResearchFood StoriesInterviewsMeet the Beacon