My Experience as a Postdoctoral Fellow - Eugene Gardner

Wellcome Sanger Institute
Eugene Gardner, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Sanger Institute
Eugene Gardner, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Sanger Institute

When you join us as a Postdoctoral Fellow you will benefit from a unique learning environment. We are proud to produce and analyse genetic and biological data on a scale unmatched by other institutes in Europe. Below Eugene Gardner shares his experience of being a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wellcome Sanger Institute.

How long have you been working at Sanger Institute?

I have been at the Sanger Institute for three and a half years. Prior to this, I was completing my PhD at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Medicine in the laboratory of Dr. Scott Devine. My work involved the design of computational tools to mine next generation sequencing data for transposons, a piece of DNA that can copy itself to new places in the genome. As part of my PhD I documented the genomic landscape of polymorphic transposon insertions in human populations as part of the 1000 Genomes Project, a global effort to document human population variation of which a significant role was performed by scientists at the Sanger Institute, specifically Matthew Hurles who is now my current supervisor. When I was finishing up my PhD I saw a job advert for a position in his lab and, as I thought highly of his work and found it immensely interesting, I put in an application. The rest is history!

Tell me about the work you are doing at Sanger Institute?

I focus on the diagnosis of children with rare developmental disorders (DD) as part of the Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD) study. Approximately 45% of patients in DDD have a single base change compared to their parents that explains their condition. My work involves trying to find diagnoses for the remaining 55% in two different ways. The first is the identification of genetic variants that, instead of single base change, are caused by large (i.e. >50bp) rearrangements of the human genome known as Structural Variation (SV). The second is by trying to understand how both common and rare variants interact to cause DD. Interestingly, healthy individuals also carry genetic changes that, if observed in our DD patients, would be considered likely causative. I am currently working to understand how are these healthy individuals are “protected” from showing the same symptoms as our recruited patients and if they can help us to understand the genetics of our remaining DD patients.

What is the most rewarding aspect of doing a postdoc at Sanger? 

My colleagues. Being able to interact every day with people of such scientific rigor is amazing. The Sanger Institute welcomes such high calibre individuals with such diverse backgrounds that I couldn’t imagine my career without them. Both the members of my team and the other postdocs and graduate students who are working/studying here bring perspectives and experiences that are vastly different from my own that help me to think in different ways that provide significant value to my science

What are the major challenges you face?

Feeling like I fit in. Part of having such amazing colleagues to work with is also comparing myself to them at times. Despite my accomplishments while at the Sanger Institute and elsewhere, I do struggle with imposter syndrome from time to time.

How will your time at Sanger Institute influence your future choices? 

I think it’s really made me think hard about whether to stay in academia or move to industry. The people I’ve interacted with as part of my research here at the Sanger span the divide between these two careers. Where before, when I thought I would always stay in academia, now I have started to explore alternative career options.

Best advice I’ve received at Sanger Institute: 

Be open with your science! During my PhD I was taught that everybody wanted to scoop your research and you had to be very secretive about what you were working on to survive. You definitely still have to know when to share you work, but embracing things like open access journals, BioRxiv, and open source programming is very integral to who I’ve become as a scientist and integral to the Sanger ethos.

Is your postdoc what you expected?

I don’t think anybody knows, even if they think they’ve planned everything out, exactly how their research will go. I certainly had expectations around projects I would do and papers I would publish, but projects fail that you thought were sure things, others that you thought might not be particularly interesting turn out to be very interesting. I would say that I came here with an open mind as to what my projects could be and I’ve taken on most things that have been thrown at me. Some have been successful and been published, but in the end, I’ve learned so much in the last two plus years and that is the most rewarding part of my postdoc.

Please share some tips for someone starting a postdoc at Sanger Institute

Network and get involved! Go to postdoc-specific and Sanger-wide events and just try to meet some people. I would also recommend getting an affiliation at a college in Cambridge to expand your network outside of Sanger. For somebody like me who moved across the ocean and had no friends over here, these things really helped me to feel settled. It will take you time to get a good friend group, but there are many ways at Sanger and in the greater Cambridge community to build one.

First thing I mastered after joining Sanger Institute

Getting my fill of free tea and coffee. As a scientist I definitely need some caffeine to make it through long hours of crushing bugs in my code and getting insignificant p-values. Between my group’s tea time, seminars, and departmental gatherings, I can get important work done every day of the week.

What is your favourite work perk? 

Meetings and courses on campus. Sanger Institute hosts a fantastic set of diverse meetings and courses on campus that are low cost for employees. I have both attended and presented at several meetings and they offer a great opportunity to network with world-renowned scientists without having to travel and see the fantastic science that they are doing.