“Give Yourself Permission to be Challenged” – Liz Harley
Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.
We all read websites. We arrive on the front page and browse the headlines, seeing if there’s anything that catches our eye. But how often do you spare a thought for all the magic that goes on behind the scenes? For nearly two years, Liz Harley has been scouring the web, chasing down leads, and writing up a storm to give you the choicest cuts of genomic news and thoroughly readable features. It’s with warmth in our heart that we wish her farewell as she embarks on a year of maternity leave. So what better way to round off her final day, than by being the subject of her most successful regular feature on frontlinegenomics.com?
What are you working on right now?
Well, right now I’m about to go on maternity leave so much of my work over the past month has been handing everything over!
But as Content Manager for Front Line Genomics my job is twofold – reporting on the latest developments across the genomics sector, and keeping the website running smoothly. So at the time of writing this, I’m in the process of adding the finishing touches to a couple of forthcoming feature articles. I can’t give away any spoilers but they are both well-worth reading!
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?
One of the big challenges from a writer’s perspective is having to be selective in which stories to cover. Genomics is a staggeringly broad field and every day sees new advances, from incremental steps in our scientific understanding to big political or business changes that impact upon the operating environment of science as a whole. All are relevant and important to someone, and it can be incredibly hard to make that judgement call on what makes it to publication and what gets left behind. We can look at our analytics and understand which topics “play well” with our audience, what gets people excited on social media, or what makes our website traffic perk up. But by just playing to our already engaged audience I worry that we run the risk of missing huge opportunities to serve the wider genomics community, which is a key part of the social mission and principles on which Front Line Genomics was founded.
Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months.
Ooh, this is tough. From a technology standpoint I would love to see Oxford Nanopore release their SmidgION device. Covering incredible advances in technology is one of my favourite parts of this job, from using AI to power drug development to the platforms that could deliver a $100 genome. Smartphone-powered sequencing would be such a significant step in opening up DNA sequencing to an audience beyond bench scientists. Even I would be tempted to get one! This approach to sequencing has the potential to lower barriers to access across the board, from price to expertise, and open up new possibilities for DNA science that simply don’t exist when your only sequencing option is the size of a dishwasher and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Second, and this might take longer than 18 months, I want to see some of the huge levels of investment in genome-based biotechs start to pay off. Grail recently raised $900 million in Series B funding out of a targeted $1.8 billion, an unprecedented level even for a company promising to change the world. Even Human Longevity only achieved $220 million at Series B. Big investments and even bigger valuations are par for the course in this sector – think about the levels of IPO achieved by the CRISPR biotechs, companies that don’t even have products yet. We saw a similar phenomenon during the dotcom bubble, but I’m really looking forward to seeing some real, meaningful, output from all of this.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think describing my haphazard series of jobs so far as a “career” would be generous! I jumped from academia into publishing, then to not-for-profit communications and advocacy, before coming to managing the website for Front Line Genomics. If there’s a consistent theme it’s been championing the cause of good science, something I am very proud to be an outspoken advocate for. And it’s corny, but I’m pretty proud of the team here at FLG. I’m inspired that so many intelligent, funny, spectacularly weird, and just excellent people are prepared to celebrate humanity’s incredible achievements in science and medicine.
On a personal note, achieving my PhD is definitely up there on the gloat list. Closely followed by having the courage to stop calling myself a “failed academic” and embrace being a professional writer.
Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?
I often wondered how I would answer this question! Hmmm. I would want Barbara McClintock there, simply because transposons were one of the first concepts in genetics that I found really mind-bending. Plus she was a botanist, and given the surfeit of botanists in my family I’m sure we could find some common ground.
Outside of genetics, astronomer Sara Seager would be an amazing addition to the evening. 715 exoplanets discovered and counting? That is someone that I want to meet. Similarly astronaut Chris Hadfield would be an essential addition to the guest list. Quite apart from being a space hero and a famous astronaut, his children’s book The Darkest Dark is nothing short of brilliant.
Finally I would need to have my fictional scientist in there: botanist, astronaut, and space pirate Mark Watney from Andy Weir’s brilliant novel The Martian. The novel itself is essentially a love letter to science and technology, and Mark is a master class in how to retain a sense of humour in a crisis!
What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?
Give yourself permission. Whether that is to try something different, go for a new career, or to ask for what you want out of your job and your life. Like so many women (and I suspect more than a few men) I had to learn to stop asking whether this was ok, or apologising for that, and just get on and make things happen. Sure, sometimes you may need to ask for forgiveness, but nine times out of ten the benefits of giving yourself permission to be challenged and of putting yourself out there are far more significant.
Why not check out The Short Read archives?
George Church – “Follow your dreams, not the drove”
Amalio Telenti – Defying the “exome-centric” view
Anna Middleton – “It’s ok to be a bit creative and entrepreneurial”
Nan Doyle – “Get clear on what matters to you”
David Smith – The “real keys to scientific success”
Hannes Smárason – The importance of Grit
Eric Topol – “Always question; never accept dogma”
Kristen Sund – “You don’t change culture overnight, it happens in baby steps”
Manuel Corpas – “Don’t rely on the future to make your choices now”
Brendan Gallagher – “Let your work’s ripple effects help sort the future out”
Hayley Robinson – When technology outpaces policy
Valentina Nardi – “Like a detective solving a puzzle”
Stephen Kingsmore – “Don’t forget to breathe!”
Judith Benkendorf – “Do not be afraid to look for mentors”
David Flannery – “If only we could predict the future”
Sarah Teichmann – Exploring the vast variety
T. Patrick Hill – “Never forget that humility is the mark of greatness”
Who would you like to see interviewed for The Short Read? Let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this Short Read are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Front Line Genomics