EMBL-ABR network: an interview with Teresa Attwood

Teresa Attwood, Professor of Bioinformatics, University of Manchester (UK), jointly appointed in the Faculty of Life Sciences and School of Computer Science.

TeresaAttwoodJuly 2016


How did you come to be working in Bioinformatics?

After my PhD, I did postdoctoral work at Leeds University on a variety of short-term projects that involved, first, protein sequence analysis and later, protein structure analysis and modelling (specifically, of G protein-coupled receptors). At the time, bioinformatics didn’t exist as a discipline. To progress my projects, I needed to search databases and align sequences, but there were few tools and resources available; I therefore collaborated with various programmer colleagues to create bespoke solutions. In 1991, I saw an announcement of a bioinformatics conference – “Bioinformatics in the ’90s”, in Maastricht (NL) – and realised, for the first time, that bioinformatics was what I’d been doing for several years – my research finally had a name!

What are the challenges you see for life scientists / medical researchers in the data driven science era?

The challenges concern the need to acquire skills in data stewardship, statistical analysis and computational thinking. Most life scientists and/or medical researchers don’t have backgrounds in these areas, because most life/biomedical-science degrees don’t integrate them in traditional programs. Hence, many of the skills now needed by researchers to manage, analyse and interpret their data have to be acquired at the point of need via short training courses. Finding the right courses, finding the time to go on such courses, and retaining the skills assimilated during those courses are significant challenges for today’s life/biomedical scientists.

Would you say this is different for actual bioinformaticians? Do they face different challenges?

The challenges for bioinformaticians are similar. Spurred on by the digital-data revolution, bioinformatics has become an increasingly fast-moving and highly technical discipline – it’s hard to keep up. Hence, even seasoned bioinformaticians may need to take additional training courses in order to keep pace with the latest developments.

What is open data, and what does it mean to you?

Open data is a term, as far as I understand it, that refers to data that adheres to ‘FAIR’ (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) principles. The philosophy of bioinformatics, as a discipline, was founded on the principle that data should be ‘freely available’ to users. Today, the FAIR principles recognise that it isn’t enough simply to make data freely available or accessible – to be maximally useful, data must be discoverable, and must also interoperate and hence be capable of being reused in a variety of potentially unimagined scenarios.

What is currently missing in the field of bioinformatics AND life sciences?

Sufficient education and training. A global thirst for bioinformatics training has arisen from the lack of life-science degree programs in which bioinformatics is integrated directly into core curricula. Many Masters and Bachelors programs include bioinformatics at some level, or focus exclusively on bioinformatics (nb: many bioinformatics programs are being rebranded as data-science courses). However, such courses do not address the need for life/biomedical scientists to have access to relevant computational and data-stewardship training as a standard component of their educational journey.

It is early days yet, but what would you like to see EMBL-ABR become, achieve?

It would be good to see EMBL-ABR becoming the go-to Hub for Australian bioinformatics, in terms both of research and the provision of services, including training. It would be good also to see EMBL-ABR taking part in, and helping to lead, global initiatives not just at the level of research, but also at the level of training. EMBL-ABR’s membership of GOBLET is a perfect example of this kind of outreach and leadership.

Today’s announcement to agree to collaborate takes our community a closer step towards this goal.


Biosketch: Terri Attwood is Professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Manchester (UK), jointly appointed in the Faculty of Life Sciences and School of Computer Science. Over the last 25 years, her research interests in protein sequence analysis have led to the creation of various databases (PRINTS, InterPro, CADRE, etc.) and software tools (e.g., such as CINEMA and Utopia). The most recent development is a ‘smart’ PDF reader that semanticly integrates scholarly articles with their research data, effectively bringing static documents to ‘life’. A strong advocate of bioinformatics teaching, she has been an educator and trainer for more than 20 years: she has published several reference works and texts (her 3rd book will be published shortly); she plays a leading role in developing ELIXIR’s Training e-Support System (TeSS); and was a founder, and is the current Chair, of the Global Organisation for Bioinformatics Learning, Education and Training – GOBLET.