Practical science: Jane Wilkinson shapes genomic research with collaborative approach
Jane Wilkinson has not only ridden the wave of the genomic revolution, she’s been an ever-present force. Since 1993, she’s worked on some of the most groundbreaking and foundational projects in genomic research, from the C. elegans nematode genome, to the human genome, rice genome, and now into the new frontiers of clinical genomics and personalized medicine.
Once a team leader on the Human Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Wilkinson has gone on to impact countless genomic research studies as a leader at Broad Genomics, which has been one of the largest producers of human genomic information in the world over the course of her tenure.
As senior director of Broad Genomics Alliance & Project Management, Wilkinson oversees project plans—determining how best to harness available technologies to extract data from biological samples—with a focus on collaboration and creative problem-solving.
In a #WhyIScience Q&A, Wilkinson talks about her career in genomics, what led her to it, and what has kept her engaged in the field over the years.
Q: What do you do at the Broad?
A: I mostly work with scientists outside of the Broad as a navigator for genomics—my collaborators are from small biotechs, large pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions. I corral their requests, which usually relate to genome or exome sequencing, data analysis, or other genomic services, into scientific project plans. Then I work with my amazing team of project managers to execute the projects and to maintain strong and collaborative scientific relationships.
Q: In your opinion, what has been your biggest scientific accomplishment so far?
A: Being a part of the Human Genome Project will always hold a huge part of my heart and I’m immensely proud to have led the finishing team of chromosome 1 for the project at the Sanger Institute in the UK. I can remember sitting in the post-announcement planning meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where the international consortium announced their new, ambitious deadline and thinking, "Um, we’re going to need more freezers." I’ve always been a practical thinker!
Q: What got you interested in science? And, what got you interested in your field of study in particular?
A: Long before the days of CSI there was a murder mystery show called Quincy, M.E. about a forensic pathologist. Even though there wasn’t a lot of real science in it, it captured my imagination and ignited a passion for biology. That passion ultimately focused on genetics because of my parents, who are both profoundly deaf from a genetic disorder. The biology behind that was always something I was curious about and wanted to study.
Q: Did you have mentors who were particularly helpful during your education and career?
A: I’ve been so fortunate to be surrounded by excellent mentors and great role models. At the University of Liverpool, Brian Tomsett constantly reminded me to push a little harder when I hit a challenge. We are still touch to this date—he’s still motivating and sometimes still laughing at me. In my early days at Sanger I was privileged to work with the Nobel Prize winner Sir John Sulston. John was approachable and nurturing in his scientific leadership style. He and I would hold up a ruler to the computer monitors and discuss the base spacing between peaks on DNA electropherograms. (Yes, it was a long time ago.) Mary Berks taught me that good leaders and managers need to be humble team players to gain the respect of their team. And now at the Broad, I’m surrounded by so many great mentors who I call upon for their individual advice and expertise. It definitely takes a village to nurture a scientist!
Q: What characteristics do you like to see from leaders in science?
A: Passion, collaboration, and honesty are the traits I look for the most from leaders in science. I like to see a commitment to sharing knowledge, and creating deep collaboration is important to me—it’s why I’m at the Broad. In the future I hope to see more collaborative science—more openness to sharing data and ideas. The problems we face are big and complex, and we’ll need an army of scientists to solve them.
Q: What advice do you have for scientists entering the field of genomics?
A: I think it’s important for scientists to question everything. There have even been times—some crossroads along the way—where I stopped and wondered if I should I should continue in the field. When that’s happened, I’ve taken the time to evaluate opportunities, but I stuck with my passion for genomics.
Also, I’ve seen significant changes during my career—in technologies, in organizations, and in funding, too—but I’ve learned to embrace these changes and think of them as a new chapter and a new challenge. “Change Management” is important and we need to realize that it’s a healthy requirement for an organization to thrive.