Real Voices interview: Dr Anthony Underwood
Bioinformatician at Public Health England
I’m a bioinformatician, which means I use computers as a labour-saving device to answer biological questions more quickly than would be possible using the traditional biological methods. I work for Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the Department of Health with a broad remit to protect the community against health dangers, including infectious disease, chemicals and radiation.
How do you use statistics in your job?
I work in the bioinformatics unit of the Microbiology Services Division of PHE. We are currently involved in a project that aims to sequence many of the genomes from bacteria or viruses in patient samples sent to us by hospitals and GP surgeries.
Obviously, that generates a vast amount of data very quickly, and it’s my job to crunch it so we can get meaningful information from it.
What kind of information?
My lab colleagues need to identify the species and characterise the particular strain of the bacteria or virus. They look for sets of genes that might make it resistant to particular drugs or produce variants of a toxin that make it more harmful when infecting people.
The revolution in sequencing technology means we can now identify diﬀerences between bacteria at the level of a single DNA nucleotide. That means we can do some really neat stuﬀ in terms of tracking the infection to its source – whether that’s a meat-packaging factory, within a particular community (a school, for example), or a healthcare worker in a hospital.
Why do you think people can be wary of maths?
I know my own kids think “What’s the use of that formula I’ve just learned?” I think most people like to see how they can use numbers to achieve something concrete.
Did you like maths at school?
I always enjoyed maths, but biology was something I could reach out and touch. I could look at a pond sample under a microscope or tear apart a leaf and see what was going on inside it. It was only when I was working as a molecular biologist that I saw the real-world uses of maths.
How did you get into bioinformatics?
I was looking for amino acid patterns in nematode worms, which was a long, laborious process. Someone mentioned that bioinformatics might be able to help me out. When I ﬁnally managed to get the computer program I’d written to work, I got the data in minutes instead of days. That was a huge kick. I still get a thrill now, when I write a program that can do weeks of work instantaneously.
The big leaps forward in science today come from combining different skill sets, which is what bioinformatics does. It’s really taking oﬀ; our group has expanded from a team of three to ten in a year, so it’s a career for the future.