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Senior analyst in microbial genomics, Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics

Dr Camilla IpCamilla knew that she wanted to be a scientist from the age of 10 - the only consideration was which field! She studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry in High School before studying Physics and Computer Science at the University of Sydney. She then worked as a programmer in the finance industry for 8 years before returning to university to study for a Master’s in bioinformatics and then a PhD in bacterial genomics.

Can you describe a typical day at work?

CI: I work in the bioinformatics “core” group at the WTCHG, my role is to help other people with their data processing and analysis problems and write bioinformatics pipelines for processing raw DNA sequencing data into a form that others can extract biologically meaning information from. My time is split between working on collaborative projects where my main role is to find the “recipe” for doing an analysis task and implementing in such a way that the programs could be used over and over for different projects, advising people how to do a particular analysis task and getting the software needed to do it working. A typical day involves answering short questions that people have emailed me, going to meetings, installing or trialling new third party bioinformatics software, and designing and writing software – the most creative and enjoyable part of my day.

What do you like best about your career?

CI: I love the structure and order that is involved in writing good robust software. At the WTCHG, I get to work on a variety of interesting, useful projects that will eventually result in improvements to medical care for ordinary people. My working hours are also relatively flexible which fits in with being a full-time working Mum with a small child.

What advice would you give to other women considering a career in science?

CI: I would suggets that women considering a career in science think about the following points:

  • Be true to your interests. If you follow paths suggested to you by your parents or your peers, you will end up being unhappy or taking longer to find the career that makes you happy.
  • When choosing subjects, follow your interests but also be practical. Choose the harder subjects, not the ones you think you will do best at, to acquire the foundational knowledge you will need later.
  • Learn how to learn. The most important skills you can learn are how to think clearly and critically, manage your time, make decisions, and gain confidence in your own abilities.
  • Ask for help if you need it. It is easy to get a little lost at university or in your early career. Don’t be shy to ask for help or advice, or as a young postdoc, find a mentor.
  • Talk to people. Many people who are attracted to the sciences do not realise that good social skills are important because scientific research is now most commonly done in large collaborative groups.
  • Choose the country of your postdoc carefully. If you haven’t already found your life partner, you will probably find them during your postdoc. So if you don’t want to end up living in a particular country on the other side of the world, don’t do your first postdoc there.
  • Work on your leadership skills. Many women are raised to be obedient and to defer to the wishes of others. To be a successful scientist, it is important to be able to devise your own research plans, confidently ask for funding money to pursue your ideas, be confident in the worth of your research, and mentor and lead a team of students and early-career researchers.

If you could go back in time, what key choices would have made a difference to your career?

CI: I didn’t realise how important statistics would be and how difficult biochemistry is to learn from a textbook. If wish I’d chosen both of these subjects as an undergraduate.

I found the transition from high school to university difficult and fell behind in maths. I mistakenly felt that I could catch up and never got any help, but if I’d had a few hours of tutoring early on I may have done maths and statistics for longer at university, which would have be very useful to me now.