Exploring the vast variety – Sarah Teichmann
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Creating a description of every cell in the human body, to act as a reference map for biomedical science, sounds like a madly ambitious pipe dream. Save for the fact that an international initiative has set about making it happen. A truly global project, the Human Cell Atlas aims to completely change how doctors and researchers understand, diagnose, and treat disease. Leading the charge on human cells is Sarah Teichmann, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Sarah and has previously described the Atlas as “the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding.”
What are you working on right now?
My research group is using single cell genomics and computational approaches to study immune responses. That’s in mice and humans – a bit of zebrafish, but mammalian systems mainly.
In parallel, I’m part of the founders and organising committee of Human Cell Atlas and the international consortium. That’s also a significant part of my activity and my group interacts with that.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?
It’s a tricky one. I think finding the balance between doing cutting edge technology and computational methods development, as well as in parallel asking important biological questions and having a good grip on the biology is a challenge. They’re two different types of skills. Spanning that within the research is a challenge at many levels; getting different types of people to work together, collaborating with different types of people outside our group, and so on. That’s really the challenge in my own research.
In the international Human Cell Atlas consortium, it’s the communication across different countries and different disciplines. Just the sheer number of people involved makes things complicated. But it’s also rewarding and will be incredibly valuable in the long term.
Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months.
One thing that would be really great would be a robust, high-throughput way of mapping gene expression patterns in tissues. To have some highly multiplexed gene expression information, as well as high resolution location of the cell within a tissue. There are many people working on that using different methods and I think that will converge and solidify within the next 18 months. That’s very exciting. Spatial transcriptomics, spatial gene expression technologies; I think that those will be very powerful in studying complex tissue architecture, which is what the Human Cell Atlas is all about.
What are you most proud of in your career?
One of the main things I’m credited with is showing that protein complex assembly pathways are stereotyped and conserved, and hence we can predict them. There was also organising the space of protein complex topologies in the periodic table of protein complexes that we published last year in Science.
And the other thing I’m proud of is applying single cell transcriptomics. I was one of the early people developing computational methods for analysing single cell line sequencing data, a technology that we’ve used to make a lot of discoveries in T-cells.
What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?
I think there’s so much to learn from engaging with colleagues or people in general outside science in an open minded, interactive way. You’re told to engage with people at conferences, like the Festival of Genomics, and I think there is a lot to get out of those experiences by interacting. I think for many of us scientists, we tend to focus on very narrow areas of research and not always look at the vast variety!