At an unremarkable beige building in Cambridge, $24 million worth of DNA sequencing machines sit in a cooled room, churning out some 900 genomes per week.
These genomes, or the complete set of genes present in a cell or organism, will be used for a variety of projects at the Broad Institute, a leading biomedical and genomic research center.
The field of genomics is most famously associated with the Human Genome Project. When that project was completed in 2003, scientists finally discovered the DNA sequence that results in a functioning human being. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
By studying DNA further, scientists realized they could better understand genetic diseases, which are influenced by a variation in the gene sequence, or could look at the cell mutations in different types of cancer. Other genomic research could teach scientists about the molecular make up of pathogens and infectious diseases like Ebola, Zika, and West Nile Virus.
While scientists in white coats may be the first people that come to mind when imagining the Broad Institute’s workforce, there are plenty of other employees (also known as ‘Broadies’) that keep the research engine running. In fact, the institute can be seen as an example of the Boston area’s highly educated, tech-heavy workforce in action, combining hard science with data analytics and project management.
Take Scott Sutherland, for example.
The Worthington, Ohio native spent over a decade working as a systems analyst and technological director at a couple of universities’ dance and art departments before transferring his skills to the biomedical field. Sutherland then spent two years creating web analytics tools for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center before going on to direct data services at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“I always wanted to work in computing, I just took a circuitous route,” Sutherland said. “I enjoyed working in the arts but I ultimately settled in life sciences.” His wife of 28 years — a pediatric oncologist — also fueled his desire to work at a biomedical organization.
Today, Sutherland is the director in the Data Sciences Platform at the Broad Institute, where he and his team work with the platform that stores all of the gene sequencing data generated at the Broad Institute. The portals he and his department build ensure that the data and methods used at the Broad can be shared openly, letting researchers from all over the world tap into the treasure trove of information.
“It lets people ask novel scientific questions with the data we produce,” Sutherland explained.
Sutherland also has his hand in many of the biomedical projects being pioneered at the Broad. For example, he’s helped build disease registries where patients can contribute their medical records to research, letting scientists study rare, neurodegenerative disorders like Ataxia Telangiectasia, which leaves children severely disabled.
The Global A-T Family Data Platform, Sutherland said, has not only allowed researchers to access clinical and genomic data from Americans living with the disease, but has also provided a model for direct participant engagement that can be used over and over again to advance research and treatment for other diseases.
“People today are expecting to be able to control data generated from their bodies and lives. As we design the next generation of studies, it’s important to give individual participants control,” Sutherland said. “This gives control to the patients and the foundations that represent them.”
Working in data analytics can be very isolating, Sutherland said, but working at a nonprofit where he can see the effects of his work on patients and their families is extremely rewarding. It also makes Sutherland excited for the future.
“At this point, we’re just realizing how much we don’t know yet and accelerating the knowledge we have around human genomics,” Sutherland said. “We’re just learning about all the stuff that makes us who we are — our behaviors and mental states. The more we know the more we can help people with what we know.”
Jane Wilkinson, senior director of alliance and project management at the Broad, can attest to the exhilarating future of genomics.
As one of the first team leaders involved with the Human Genome Project when it launched in 1993, Wilkinson has seen gene sequencing machines’ capabilities skyrocket in recent years.
Wilkinson’s primary job is to manage research initiatives. This involves working with people who want to collaborate with the Broad by understanding their experiment designs and converting those ideas into real projects, whether they’re from biotech or pharmaceutical companies, or academic institutions.
“It’s a lot of relationship building,” Wilkinson said of her job. “Letting people know when we have new capabilities, forming good, solid relationships…As a manager, I believe that if you hire the right people, you only have to mentor.”
Another inspiring part of Wilkinson’s job is interacting with patients.
For the Broad’s Metastatic Breast Cancer Project, patients are engaged via social media to share tumor samples and clinical information, regardless of where they live in the U.S. so researchers can identify genes in their tumor that could suggest why their cancer spread.
Some of the volunteer patients, Wilkinson said, send customized kits filled with their saliva samples. “When we get these back, people bedazzle the kits and leave little Post It notes,” she said.
“It’s such a feel-good project,” Wilkinson added. “It does a great job touching on how important it is to have patients aware of genomics, and how important it is for patients to enroll in these studies.”
Like Sutherland, Wilkinson’s job at the Broad balances her interests, combining her passion for science with her desire to organize projects.
“You don’t always get a brilliant scientist who is good at executing things,” Wilkinson said. “My team takes the idea and experiment and executes it and makes sure it happens. I love keeping that communication open and expanding the network of accessibility to the Broad Institute’s amazing genomics platform and making sure people have access to it.”