Julia Wilson, Associate Director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
- Science and medicine
Name: Julia Wilson
Job Title: Associate Director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
My position in a nutshell… The Sanger Institute is a research institute that studies genomes. Genomes are the DNA that code life and we study the genomes of humans and infectious diseases to understand health and disease and we also study genomes of other species to understand more about life on earth.
My role is to understand the science that we do, and make partnerships with universities or commercial companies to work together, I also work with government to make sure we have the correct rules for doing research and funders to make the case for spending more money on research.
How I got the job… I studied Microbiology at university, and then did a PhD about how kidney transplants are rejected by the white blood cells that make up our immune system. That was six years at university and then I was funded by an EU programme for young researchers to live and work in a different country so I spent 4 years living and working in Sweden, before I moved back to London to a job at Cancer Research UK. I then realised that I love science but I’m not very good at doing it, I’m much better at talking about it or writing about it, so I moved to a role where I could manage research. I worked in medical research charities, where I could use my science background to write a science plan, review and fund the best science and talk to the public who want to support cancer research. I got my current role 6 years ago.
My typical day…My role is very varied and there is a lot of meetings and until 2020 there was a lot of travel. I attend scientific meetings and conferences, we’re always looking for the next big idea in genome science. I’m often asked to talk to other organisations about the science that we’re doing and we discuss if there are opportunities to work together on specific scientific challenges. I speak to government departments about how important life sciences is for both the health of the UK, but also the economy of the UK. The UK is seen as world leading in life sciences and we want to keep this, as research employs thousands of people. I need to stay up to date with progress in science and the latest breakthroughs.
The worst part of my job… Sometimes it feels that all I do is talk and progress is slow, but often it takes time to build trust and relationships and then suddenly we’re in the right place at the right time.
The best part of my job…There have been some amazing moments in my career, I’ve met Prime Ministers, travelled to places I never thought I’d see as part of my work, and nothing beats bringing in millions of pounds of funding that will be spent on great science.
What are the key skills / attributes needed in your role… For my role you need a background in science and an interest in people. I often need to take very complex science and distil it into a few sentences that will engage others and make them want to know more about what we do. I have learnt over the years to be better at giving presentations, I used to hate standing up and talking, but now it feels natural.
Advice for someone looking to go into a similar role… If you are interested in science then there has never been a better time, science isn’t simply working in a testing lab in a hospital, and there are many careers that need a science background. These include skilled technical staff, data scientists, health and safety, scientists who manage research, or work in science communication, and museums. There are lots of places where you can learn more, free online courses about genomics and communicating science from FutureLearn, podcasts from the scientific journals such as Nature, a great one called Naked Genetics and also the Guardian newspaper has some great science resources.