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Head of the Bill Lyons Informatics Centre, UCL Cancer Institute: Dr Javier Herrero


Javier Herrero, PhD

Current job:

Head of the Bill Lyons Informatics Centre, UCL Cancer Institute

Length of career:

I started my PhD in Jan 1999, so 17.5 years

Key quote:

Surprisingly, I have become more useful and better at my job as I tried to be less essential. Make sure you don’t become a bottleneck for your colleagues or collaborators!

Career in brief:

I did my PhD under the supervision of Joaquin Dopazo. It began based between Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK) and the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (CNB) in Madrid but a year and a half in, my supervisor and I moved to the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) where we established the bioinformatics unit.

My thesis focussed on the analysis of gene expression patterns from microarray data. During that time I also had the opportunity to learn many new technical skills.

After finishing my PhD, I joined the Ensembl team at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). During the nine years I stayed there, I progressed in the team from developer to project leader, to coordinator. I was working on comparative genomics, with a focus on whole genome multiple alignments and genome conservation. I contributed to several large-scale projects including ENCODE, mouse ENCODE, the 1000 Genomes Project and the analysis of many newly sequenced vertebrate genomes.

While at the EMBL-EBI, I started managing a small group and I found it useful to attend the management skills courses, which is something that is too often overlooked in science.

I am currently leading the Bill Lyons Informatics Centre, which is the bioinformatics lab at the UCL Cancer Institute. We work on many fascinating projects from basic functional genomics to cancer immunology. Even better than that, we have a fantastic office with great views over London!

I spend my days:

My main priority is to make sure that the people in my team have all they need to do their job. I try to meet with them on a one-to-one basis once a week. The rest of my time is spent on emails, more meetings, discussing projects and proposals, and, when time allows, doing some lightweight data analysis.

I am currently fascinated by cancer heterogeneity, evolution and immunology. Bridging all the fields is only possible thanks to the fantastic team of collaborators we have at the UCL Cancer Institute and to new technology. For instance, we are using single cell sequencing techniques to better understand the heterogeneity of tumours before and after treatment.

Career highlights:

I think participating in large-scale projects, especially ENCODE, has given me a lot of visibility. Also, seeing our work featured on the cover of top journals is always a morale boost.

For the opening of the Bill Lyons Informatics Centre (in April 2014) we invited Frank Dobson, former MP Holborn and St Pancras and a former Secretary of State for Health. I had to wear a suit and a tie and give a speech with no slides, which put me slightly out of my comfort zone!

Biggest challenges:

Clearly the most difficult aspect of my job is to keep up to date with technical advances and familiarise myself with the biological questions that my collaborators are tackling.

What I’d do differently/I wish I’d known/I still wonder if:

I should have put more emphasis in publishing my own papers. My team in Ensembl did a lot of good work, but because this was not a priority we never took the time to turn this into publications. Get your papers out, do it now!

Skills I consider most valuable:

With science and genomics especially being so collaborative, it is important to cherish your collaborations. Working with others in an efficient and friendly way (which involves managing expectations) is key for succeeding in my role.

I am inspired by:

There are many people I could or I would have to acknowledge here, but Ewan Birney stands out. The way he approaches collaborative science and the way he interacts with people is a constant inspiration for me.

Words of wisdom:

Scientific research is very demanding. Follow your interests; make sure you enjoy your everyday job. Be honest to yourself when looking at your career options.

Next steps:

I took up my current position only two years ago and I see myself staying here for the foreseeable future. Bioinformatics demand will grow in our institute, so there is still plenty to do and probably new opportunities to come.

Further information:

Javier's profile on IRIS  

Javier's profile on LinkedIn