Getting to know us: Paul Kersey, Ensembl Genomes Team Leader

This month we’re meeting Paul Kersey, who is the Ensembl Genomes team leader.

What is your job in Ensembl?

I’m the leader of the Non-Vertebrate genomics team. That means I’m the “front man” for Ensembl Genomes – our services for bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and invertebrate metazoa – although of course these activities depend on many people from many teams.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The sheer variety of science, and scientists, that I come into contact with. There’s a routine administrative aspect, of course, but also tremendous variety in terms of the people we interact with. Plus, I often get to talk about the great work that our teams do, which is (almost) always fun.

What are you currently working on?

I have recently been in Italy for a meeting for the Infravec project – a European effort to build research infrastructure for disease vectors – mosquitoes, ticks, and midges. Through this project, scientists are able to access facilities and materials for vector research – and one condition is that they share the data they produce as a result. Ensembl will be a medium for that.

What is your typical day?

My days are varied – on a typical day, I might write or give a talk, write part of a grant application (or less enjoyably, a progress document for a previously funded project), review progress on an internal project with my team, and take part in a phone call with external collaborators. Sadly, I almost never write code any more.

How did you end up here?

I did a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, but the laboratory wasn’t for me. I took a course at the University of York in “biological computation” that had originally focused on ecological modelling, but which was starting to become more bioinformatics focused as the discipline took off. While I was there, Craig Venter announced his plan to sequence the human genome privately – the Wellcome Trust responded by upping its commitment to a publicly available genome, and it turned out to be a good environment in which to be looking for a job. The EBI hired me, initially as a programmer, but gradually I acquired responsibility for projects, moving to Ensembl in 2008.

What surprised you most about Ensembl when you started working here?

It’s not exactly a surprise, because I had been working with Ensembl people long before it became my day job, but the sheer quantity of training events always impressed me – I can’t think of any other project that engages with so many of its users, worldwide, on a face-to-face basis.

What is the coolest tool or data type in Ensembl that you think everybody should know about?

I like the fact that we’ve adapted the comparative genomics methods developed in Ensembl for vertebrate species for other branches of the taxonomy. These work best when, as is the case with the vertebrate clade, we can apply them to a set of relatively closely related genomes. Cereal crops are a good example, where we have some really excellent “gene trees” (inferred evolutionary histories of gene families) available. Even though many of the genomes are still fragmented, the evolutionary relationships are very clear at the genic level. Check them out!