Technophile, serial innovator, scientist and doctor, Nazneen Rahman has made a career out of taking new technologies and putting them to good use. With so much potential in genomics, there are still some radical changes needed to realise it.

Nazneen Rahman Festival of Genomics London

Nazneen Rahman from the Institute of Cancer Research speaks at Festival of Genomics London

From speaking at Wired, to being featured in the Financial Times – if you’re reading this you probably already know who Nazneen Rahman is. But in a field full of brilliant minds, what makes her such a compelling individual? Despite having a remarkable career working on cancer, it’s rarely the subject people want to draw her on. It’s always the ‘big questions’. As a self-confessed technophile, she has an amazing ability to quickly see where new opportunities might come from and how to make the most of them. Ahead of her hotly anticipated appearance on the Festival of Genomics London main stage, we were thrilled to get a preview of what to expect.

FLG: You have spectacular research career, you’ve been pretty vocal in campaigning for and promoting various issues, and you have an album out as well…

NR: Yeah, my other life, which was a secret for a long time, but it’s no longer a secret. You can’t have secrets in the modern age!

FLG: We’ve been pretty impressed by it in the office! Well, our first question has to be- how do you find the time to do so much?

NR: Well, for a lot of my career, I’ve been a really very hardcore scientist and really taking new technology and trying to use it – sort of use it to destruct as much as one can to make new discoveries and translate these into the clinic. I’m a technophile actually going through all the things that I do including the music in fact. I’m an early adopter. I’m interested in anything new really, whether it’s in the social dimension or not. I like new things and genomics just has turned out to be something where there have been such extraordinarily, transformative, and disruptive new innovation. That’s been really interesting to me. I’ve also been very interested in global connectivity, and how that’s allowed one to influence, interact and make an impact on scales that just weren’t possible before. In some ways, exploiting that global connectivity which to my mind is just a new method just like sequencing is a new method, is equally disruptive and transformative. I’m sort of a serial innovator in many ways, an entrepreneurial sort of scientist and doctor really.

The music has also been about the technology. That’s made the difference to me. 20 years ago when I was in college – if you wanted to do music, you had to get a band together. It was a big organisational sort of enterprise. I really got back into music through technology. My album has got lots of different types of instruments, most of them are computer generated because you can just do amazing things which sound extraordinary. I love sort of layering on vocals, that’s always been a real thing of mine but that’s really easy to do in the modern age. Technology allows you to just be incredibly more productive with less time really. So I think that’s been the core of it really, adapting all of these new tools. I love productivity tools. I wasted a lot of time being unproductive, trying to find productivity tools in that slightly ironic way.

I’m bit of a doctor and a scientist- I run a clinical unit of making the discoveries, making impact in the clinic, but also the things that we decided to work on are very influenced by the problems in the clinic. So I have that sort of circularity that’s allowed me to go between them, and make impact in most of those areas.

FLG: Working as a doctor and scientist must give you an interesting perspective on how you go about your work in both domains?

NR: Yes, I think sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Often the sort of science I’ve done has essentially been about puzzle solving. There are things that are perplexing, or which aren’t solved, and one has the potential to try and find answers. That’s often the driver. It’s a relatively pure, sort of, wanting to just try and discover new things.

It’s certainly true that the things one tries to address are very much influenced by the patients one sees. One does understand the systems better but one also does have the authority to be able to do that. And I think that there are many, many, many scientists who really find it very important to do research that can potentially have a positive impact on human health. But they find a way in which they are trying to make that happen is a little bit indirect, they have to go somehow through the NHS in the UK which is, you know, an ongoing mystery to everyone including those of us who’ve been in it. I’m trying to change myself; I’m changing at least my own practice, so it should be at least one degree easier than changing somebody else’s. So, I think that can be really, really helpful, yeah.


You can read the full interview with Nazneen on page 16 here.

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