“Can a Molecular Biologist Also Be a Programmer? Yes” – Colin Cox
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.
Colin Cox uses “acoustic droplet ejection” (ADE) to perform high-throughput genotyping in the context of an R&D biotherapeutics pipeline. His lab processes roughly 350,000 samples a year in order to generate ~800,000 genotypes on very complex genetic models. Recently, Colin validated a no-downtime upgrade from traditional pipetting robots to ADE dispensers and investigated the effect on cross-contamination and return-on-investment.
Colin has been working with laboratory robotics for 19 years and holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Texas. He is also passionate about supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace, currently working with LBGT and women’s professional groups.
Colin will be joining us at Festival of Genomics London in January 2018 as a speaker. On day two he will be presenting on ‘Animal Genotyping by NGS: The Pitfalls and Pearls of an Emerging Workflow’.
What are you working on right now?
My lab is working on the intricacies of building NGS applications for transgenic animal genotyping. We believe this will result in processes for mammalian genotyping that will combine reduced cost and effort with increased data integrity. We are writing software to produce genotype calls from NGS data, while figuring out the lab processes.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?
Overall, creating a solution in an area where no one is currently attempting the same thing at the same scale. This makes for a less certain path and limits collaboration. In a functional sense, scaling up to the realities of NGS has been described by many as being like ‘drinking from a fire hose’. In a cultural sense, overcoming the “can I do it?” transition in roles. For instance, some people place themselves deeply into a role and are less confident adapting to new ones. Can a molecular biologist also be a programmer? It’s easier to say ‘yes’ to such questions more so each year.
Name one big development that you would like to see in your field in the next 18 months
A greater focus for non-WGS/NGS applications and corresponding vendor solutions and support. There are now some pretty neat things going on with rapid and lower-cost NGS sequencing which I think will ultimately benefit people needing rapid results or a variable production scale. Groups like medical clinics, hospitals, genetic counsellors, diagnostic labs, genetic analysis labs, and other groups would all benefit from focused development on applications with rapid turn-around time.
What are you most proud of in your career?
In the arena of science and laboratory robotics, I’m most proud of automating things that are considered to have an ‘artful’ component, like in vitro aptamer selection or building synthetic genes (in older times) without the need for gel purification, etc. One of the best aspects of laboratory automation is enabling great science to be done which was otherwise considered too slow, too costly, or too much manual work. On the human side of the equation, I’m most proud of directly supporting our company’s professional women’s group and co-running a peer-support group based on Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of Lean In circles.
Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?
Alan Turing, Brené Brown, and Carl Sagan. As a young gay scientist, I wasn’t aware of any of gay scientific role models other than Turing. His impact in WWII is obvious and I wanted to know what it was like to be gay and performing science in his time. Brené Brown researches shame, vulnerability and courage. Her work and writings have greatly helped me become a better leader and I share those learnings in our Lean In circle program. When I was a child, I watched Carl Sagan and marvelled at the beauty of our world and universe. I credit my deep love of space and astronomy to him.
What advice do you wish someone had given to you at the start of your career?
Embrace feedback (especially that which you disagree with) and actively seek it out. If someone is telling you something, that means that in some way they care and are engaged. I’ve noticed that when creating a more receptive and respectful environment, people are encouraged to be more innovative. In their book on 21st-century leadership, Wallace & Trinka stated it well: “Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. Let people see you value both feedback and ideas.”
Registration for the 2018 Festival is free; secure your Festival Pass here to hear from Colin and the rest of the fantastic speaker line-up.
Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution
Why not check out The Short Read archives?