Name: Janet Harwood
Age range: 41-50
Research institution: Cardiff School of Biosciences, Cardiff University
Research career length: 20 years
Research Council: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Location: Cardiff, Wales
Brief summary of research: Mapping the landscape of the yeast genome using bioinformatics
A-levels: Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics
BSc in Zoology, University of Durham
Research Assistant, Ludwig Centre for Cancer Research
Research Assistant, Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK)
Information consultant for GlaxoSmithKline and Cellzome
Database curator, European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge
Daphne Jackson Fellowship, Cardiff University School of Biosciences
“Research allows people to explore to the limits of knowledge, to make new discoveries and to learn valuable technical and transferable skills. The results are hugely rewarding and their impact on society can be high.”
The publication of the sequence of the human genome is one of the greatest achievements of the last decade. The potential to unlock the information contained within our cells relies on the ingenuity and dedication of researchers like Janet Harwood, who combine their scientific knowledge and programming skills to develop powerful bioinformatics tools.
The genomes of higher organisms comprise very large amounts of DNA. If all of the DNA from a human cell nucleus were joined together, it would be approximately two metres long. Packaging this DNA in to the nucleus of a cell is equivalent to bundling 200km of cotton into a basketball. This packaging is achieved by coiling the DNA around proteins, like coiling a hosepipe around a reel and then these coils are further packaged into a complex 3D structure. This protein super-structure that packages, protects and manages accessibility to DNA is called chromatin. Understanding chromatin structure is important because the malfunction of some of the proteins involved in its control cause human diseases and many cancers.
Recent developments in ‘next-generation sequencing’ techniques mean that the analysis of genome-wide chromatin structure is possible. However, the volume and complexity of data generated in these experiments is immense.
My research addresses the need to develop computational biology tools for the analysis and visualisation of these very large, complex biological data sets so that we can compare chromatin structure at the level of the whole genomes and produce ‘genome landscape maps’ of the data. Currently I work on the yeast genome, but we are developing tools so that we will be able to tackle the much larger human genome.
Having first graduated in Zoology, I worked as a research assistant in several academic research institutes, gaining experience in a range of techniques, before moving to work in biological industrial spin-out companies. Whilst my children were very young, I worked flexibly from home as an information consultant, combining my scientific knowledge with information handling, to develop scientific literature databases. After a recent career break, I decided to return to research in bioinformatics, as this is an exciting and rapidly developing area of work where there is also a skill shortage.
I have a passion for biology, which developed at school. My parents encouraged me to work in the area that I was passionate about. An interest in laboratory research developed whilst doing my research project as part of my BSc at university, and I was further influenced by scientists who trained me in my early career. I was also fortunate in recognising the significance that sequencing the human genome would have on biology in the future and how important computer programming skills would be in this area of research.
I am still training and still learning. My current Daphne Jackson Fellowship has enabled me to attend a range of courses to train me in new skills and techniques that support my work.
Working in research is intellectually stimulating and provides an environment that is both challenging and where problem-solving skills and patience are valued. In the future, I hope to secure funding to continue with my work and would like to do a PhD . I would then wish to develop a bioinformatics group at Cardiff and teach the subject to the next generation of researchers.