A Blueprint for Success


I am a Biomolecular Interaction Network Database (BIND) curator and the Journal Relations Co-Ordinator for the Blueprint Initiative. The Blueprint Initiative is a public good-research program, affiliated with the University of Toronto, of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto. BIND is the world's largest biomolecular-interaction database. All data stored in BIND is freely available to the research community, both academic and private sector, as are all of Blueprint's bioinformatics tools.

I graduated from York University in 1998 with a PhD in biology and went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). My postdoctoral work involved signal transduction pathways that regulate chemotaxis. In particular, I was trying to identify the substrates of various phosphatases and kinases that I had helped clone. I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research during my tenure at UCSD.

My time at UCSD was wonderful and it provided me with a clearer picture of where I wanted my career to go. Up to that point I had intended to pursue a faculty position in Canada upon completion of my postdoctoral work. However, as my time at UCSD drew to a close, I found that I had developed an interest in bioinformatics. During my postdoc I had done a lot of work using bioinformatics tools and information provided by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). I had also done a lot of background research in bioinformatics for writing grants and became interested in the grant-writing process.

How to find a career in bioinformatics

I now wanted to pursue a career in one of these fields, or perhaps find a career that combined the two. I knew that faculties in Canadian universities were starting to employ scientists in "research officer" positions that were involved in grant writing, research, and fostering collaborations, but I did not have a clear plan on how I could pursue a bioinformatics career in Canada.

I returned to Canada in 2002 and took up a second postdoctoral position, at York University, while pursuing my broader career objectives. While browsing the Biotech HR Pulse late in 2002, I came across an advertisement for a BIND curator position with the Blueprint Initiative. BIND curators glean biomolecular interaction data from peer-reviewed, published papers and enter them into BIND. Because curators need to understand the literature and the experiments that demonstrate biomolecular interactions, they are required to have graduate degrees in a biological science, preferably with wet lab experience.

After some background research, I realized that Blueprint was poised to become the world's leader in biomolecular interaction bioinformatics. Blueprint appeared to be emerging as Canada's biomolecular interaction version of GenBank, the genetic database housed at NCBI. A biomolecular interaction database would have been invaluable for me during my postdoctoral work, so I felt that BIND would eventually be very helpful for all researchers whose work involved biomolecular interactions.

When I interviewed for the BIND curator position, I was particularly taken by Christopher Hogue's vision--Hogue is Blueprint's principal investigator--of where Blueprint could take science. With the successful completion of genome-sequencing projects, science's knowledge of genes and proteins has increased exponentially. The next logical step would be to determine how all these components interact with one another to form the engine of life.

Therefore, I thought, BIND's role as a central repository for biomolecular interaction data would be crucial. My two mentors, Barrie Coukell and Ron Pearlman, both professors at York University, confirmed that this was indeed an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a Canadian project that could impact science dramatically, so I decided to accept the position.

I started working at Blueprint in the spring of 2003. BIND curators are full-time employees with full benefits. Blueprint provided me with training on many bioinformatics tools, in-house and Web-based, as well as training in the curation process. Manuals detailing Blueprint's curation process, as well as all of its bioinformatics tools, are freely available on Blueprint's Web site. Blueprint also encourages and provides any additional training that its employees think would benefit them in their career development. For example, I have taken a computer-programming course and am slated to take a management course in the coming year.

Both organizational and personal growth

In the year I have worked at Blueprint the organization has grown significantly, as have my responsibilities. Initially I was responsible only for my individual curation. I now lead a team of six curators who are responsible for entering yeast biomolecular interaction data into BIND. Curation team leaders also work closely with software developers, implementing BIND bioinformatics tools. I am also involved in the hiring of new curators, as well as in the formulation of curation policy as BIND evolves to meet the scientific community's needs. I also have the opportunity to contribute to grant proposals, both as a writer and by doing background research.

Blueprint has sent me to conferences throughout North America as part of a team that demonstrates BIND to the scientific community. BIND has been very well received by scientists. Consequently, my job has evolved and I am now also part of a team that is fostering relationships with peer-reviewed journals from which we are curating biomolecular interaction information. It has become clear that as Blueprint continues to grow there will be more opportunities to manage large curation projects as well as collaborations with research labs seeking to submit their interaction data directly to BIND.

Blueprint is also very supportive of working parents. I have a young family and Blueprint affords me the flexibility I sometimes need to meet the everyday challenges of being a parent.

Blueprint is a testament to our government's commitment to establish Canada in the forefront of scientific achievement. Blueprint employs a one-of-a-kind mix of talented Canadians with different backgrounds and specialties, all working toward the same goal: building the world's foremost repository of biomolecular interaction information and the bioinformatics tools to compliment it. Blueprint's workforce includes software developers, biology curators, chemistry curators, project managers, and administrative support staff. Such a dynamic mix of backgrounds is emerging as a fundamental requirement of effective work in this emerging field, systems biology.

The systems biology approach, where cross-disciplinary scientists work together as a team, can potentially make important contributions to research. Communication, teamwork, and adaptability are essential in this type of environment. For example, Blueprint employs administrative staff that also have degrees in science, biologists that have taken computer programming courses, and computer programmers that understand biology. If an aspiring student wishes to pursue a career in systems biology research then they should diversify some of their training. For example, learn computer languages while doing a degree in biology, or learn biology while completing a degree in computer science.

In closing I would like to give you a glimpse of just one area where Blueprint's research may be taking us. Imagine being able to do computer cell simulations, much as aerospace engineers simulate aircraft design and performance. Cell simulation will require biologists, engineers, chemists, mathematicians, software developers, and perhaps professionals from fields not yet imagined, all working as a close-knit team with biomolecular interaction information stored in a central database.

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