Dr Enrique Sanchez Molano on data analysis
Investigating genetics data, the value of maths, and supporting research careers.
Dr Enrique Sanchez Molano is a Core Scientist who specialises in computing analysis for genetic research. In this interview, he talks to MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement students Chengshuang Xu and Kirsty Nolan about studying animals without seeing them, learning to embrace applied maths, and the importance of networks for career development.
Could you briefly explain your work?
In all my research, I have worked in population and quantitative genetics. My PhD was related to conservation strategies and theoretical genetics, working mainly with simulations and mathematical models.
I did my first postdoctoral research in Spain, where I started to examine animal data, also using simulation and modelling. I learnt how to program in the computing language Fortran, commonly used in population genetics.
I moved to Roslin in early 2012 to do a second postdoc. I analysed data relating to genes and physical traits, trying to improve our understanding of the gene-based processes behind a complex disease, hip dysplasia, in dogs. I also developed simulations to understand how breeding schemes could prevent this, because it is affected by both genetic and environmental factors.
In 2014, I took on my current role at Roslin as a Core Scientist, a senior postdoc or researcher who is not assigned to any particular project, but to a group. I work with Professor Georgios Banos, who operates at Roslin and at Scotland’s Rural College. In this role I begun to research livestock. Throughout my career I typically have not worked directly with animals or livestock, as a computer-based scientist I mainly analyse data.
What inspired you to follow this career path?
Since I was a child, I wanted to go into science, but I was not sure which career to choose. I struggled to decide between biology, medicine and pharmacy. I chose biology, a generalist degree, which I thought would open avenues for my future. I always wanted to do something related to either laboratory or computer sciences.
After my degree, I wanted to specialise in genetics. This is funny, because I have never liked mathematics, but I ended up specialising in quantitative genetics, the most mathematical subject in biology, and this field made me realise how applicable mathematics are to real-world problems.
What’s your favourite piece of research you have been involved with?
My main piece of work is researching the genetic architecture, or processes and systems, of different phenotypes – how DNA relates to the physical characteristics we observe. That involves a lot of complex mathematics, because some traits are brought about by just one gene, but others are caused by many genes with small additive effects, which we call the infinitesimal model. Trying to develop and understand these mathematical models is the part that I mostly enjoy. I think people don’t like to learn maths because it is taught theoretically. If teachers were able to show that maths is applicable to the real world, more people would enjoy it.
How do you see your future?
I would like to become an independent researcher. I have started preparing some fellowship applications and grants, but this process can be very complicated and is quite competitive at some points.
You are co-Chair of the Roslin Career Development Committee and are involved in many other committees; why are these important to you?
Research doesn’t happen in isolation; you are always part of a team. You are part of a society and, in the same way that society contributes to your research, such as providing funding, you also need to contribute to society.
Also, I think I can help people who are starting their careers in research. When I came to the UK, it was the first time I left Spain to work. People at Roslin were very welcoming, introducing me to everyone else, new places and events. I think it’s very important to feel part of a group, and I want newcomers to feel accepted. In current society, there is a tendency to be individualistic, but I think you should interact with other people. You should create networks, because, in the end, these networks are going to be important for you and for your future research.
You have won two Citizenship awards from the University. Could you tell us more about your work in this area?
I first joined the Postdoc Committee, which was tasked with mostly social activities to create a friendly environment. Once the previous chair stepped down, I took over. Since then, the purpose of the committee has evolved to not only be social but also to help postdocs develop their careers. Then I joined the Career Development Committee where I helped design activities tailored for postdocs, to help them achieve new career skills which would help them achieve independency, for example writing papers and grants.
I also joined the University’s Research Cultures Working Group and the Campus Improving Culture Group, because there are lots of diverse backgrounds at Roslin which need to be considered together for the University to evolve and become more inclusive. Additionally, problems can occur in work life and people need to know that help or support is there.
What are the main challenges you face as a scientist?
When dealing with research relating to climate change, most funding bodies want to see improvement in the short term. However, climate change is very complex and many factors need to be considered to have an effect in the long term. The key challenge is to try to convince funders that they need to think beyond the next five to 10 years.
Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists?
Firstly, think carefully about whether it is what you want to do. It can be quite challenging, there is a lot of competition and rejection is part of this career process. But if you decide that it is what you want to do, go for it, give it your best. Science can be tricky but there is nothing more rewarding than when you see your name as an author on your first published paper.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?
In high school, I was considering medicine or pharmacy besides biology. I was really thinking about pharmacy, because I find toxicology very interesting and within medicine, I love forensics. I would have probably gone for forensic medicine.