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Janet Thornton stepped down as Director of EMBL-EBI on 30 June 2015 and continues to lead her research group. Here, she shares some reflections on her time as Director of one of Europe’s fastest growing research institutes.

Janet Thornton. Photo: Robert Slowley
Janet Thornton. Photo: Robert Slowley

There are few things harder than giving up something you love.

In 2001 I was offered a chance to be Director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute, which had really just got off the ground – and I’m very happy to have taken it. But it meant leaving behind not only friends and colleagues at University College London, but also an environment where I was surrounded by experimental biologists, especially the structural biologists who produced much of the data which I so enjoy analysing. I deliberated for a long time on whether the risk would be worth it, but if I’d known then what I know now, honestly it would have taken
me even longer to decide.

I came because I felt (and feel) that looking after data is so important

As I saw things then, here was an opportunity to lead an institute that is responsible for biomolecular data – collecting, curating and standardising it, to make it available to other scientists – and by doing so I could contribute to the progression of science in a very concrete way. Not just my own science, but the whole enterprise of life science research worldwide. From a personal research perspective, I understood that integrating many different types of data is critical for modern biology and EMBL-EBI seemed a good place to do this!

What I didn’t realise was how demanding the job would be. In retrospect, I can see that the data explosion was only just beginning, but even at that time we had to run
to stand still.

The compute infrastructure at EMBL-EBI was still limited, and the research had yet to coalesce. We had five databases and five research groups. The groups and teams worked very independently, making it difficult to integrate data and create common methods of working. The website was there, but a bit clunky. There was just one building, easily housing all the staff, who would meet regularly on the landing for tea! Although we dreamed of applications to medicine and agriculture, in reality they were very limited. All these things have changed.

It’s helped that I honestly enjoy talking to people about their work

What has not changed is that data is at the heart of our mission, whether it be in the service teams who work tirelessly to make it available for all, or in the research groups who have fun developing new methods and approaches to make sense of all the data.

One of the challenges I had not really appreciated upfront was how challenging it can be to bring very different people to a common understanding of a problem, so you can work together efficiently. Individuals are so diverse, as are groups, organisations and governments, with different drivers, ways of thinking and motivation.Communication is critically important and difficult to do well.

It’s helped that I honestly enjoy talking to people about their work, and working together towards a joint purpose; that’s just part of who I am. What I had to learn as Director was that as an institute grows, it becomes more and more important to structure communication. Doubling the size of an organisation more than doubles the effort you have to put into communication, both internally and externally. Getting people to listen to one another and establishing two-way communication, whether it’s between individuals, groups, EMBL sites, or government agencies, is very hard work.

European collaboration: difficult, but worth it

ELIXIR has been a thread through most of my time here, and it’s been fascinating to find my way through science policy and public affairs in different countries. The way each European nation has evolved has given us a very diverse economic, political and scientific landscape. It has been great seeing all the different scientific funding structures, how people interact in different countries, and learning how to find a win-win outcome. Whatever you’re building together, it has to work for both sides. You have to keep at it – listening, communicating, and engaging – until you find that common ground.

This coordinated infrastructure has been a lot of hard work for everyone, and will continue to be so. It is only worthwhile because the data and science demand this organisation to allow scientific progress, by ‘building on the data and tools of giants’.

Can you be a part-time research leader?

When I arrived at EMBL-EBI in 2001, there were about 150 people working here. Now, there are closer to 600. Directing a rapidly growing institute while leading a research group really brought home to me that there are many, many ways to run a group – and most senior scientists effectively do this part-time because of their many other commitments.

When you’re time limited, your group needs a special modus operandi, and they need to be more independent. I was very nervous about this at first because I wanted to be on hand for everything – but I actually found that the need for my students and postdocs to work more independently helped them grow better. Some people thrive in this kind of environment and some don’t; it can be really hard to be a good mentor when someone needs you a lot and you simply do not have the time.

Being a good mentor is something that comes naturally when you’re fundamentally interested in other peoples’ work and it’s a difficult thing to delegate. One thing I’m looking forward to is having more time to be more involved with my group members and their work. Another big plus will be having time to just think. Just, to think. Imagine.

Director Emeritus: science policy and support

But I’m not sure there will be as much time for that as I’d hoped! Two things I take very seriously are my role in promoting science, supporting young scientists and informing policy as a member of the Royal Society and the European Research Council. I have also agreed to serve on several Scientific Advisory Boards to help institutions and scientists face the Big Data challenge.

Family first

What have I enjoyed most about being Director of EMBL-EBI? I’ve enjoyed being part of the EMBL ‘family’: an intensely international collective built on scientific curiosity, love of learning and commitment to scientific excellence. I’ve enjoyed helping EMBL-EBI grow to serve so many areas of science so well, bringing communities together to speak a common language, and providing a solid foundation on which new discoveries can be built. It really has a unique role in the world, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. Finding that common understanding between many very, very different people – the best things we’ve done have been built on that.

EMBL is a brilliant organisation, and EMBL-EBI an ever-changing, outstanding part of it. Long may it continue, and go from strength to strength.

Tags: Bioinformatics, Careers, EMBL-EBI

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