Getting to know us: Astrid from Outreach

Ever wondered what an Outreach Officer does? Meet Astrid who talks about her job and how she got here.

What is your job in Ensembl?

I am an Outreach Officer in a small team that forms the public face of Ensembl. A major part of my job is organising and delivering training both in person and online. I deliver training courses in Cambridge, UK, where we are based, in the rest of the country and worldwide, so this part of my job involves quite a bit of travelling. Another part is science communication and writing. I manage our Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, write posts for our blog and create help as well as documentation web pages. Finally, I support the people who use our free resource. I reply to their questions and help requests; and I am also involved in testing new tools and displays.

What do you enjoy about your job?

This has to be the training I deliver all over the world! I really enjoy teaching people about all the cool stuff that Ensembl offers and how they can make most of it for their research or other field of work (yes, Ensembl is not only used by researchers, but also by clinicians and in industry). I enjoy chatting to participants and hosts of the training events to find out about their work, how they use Ensembl and more generally about their country, culture and everything else they like to talk to me about. So far, I have been to twelve countries, including some I would not have chosen for a holiday, had many interesting conversations and saw some great places.

At the moment, we have a Wellcome Trust grant that allows us to deliver training in low-middle income countries for free, including Train the Trainer courses. My trips to India, Argentina, Morocco and Serbia have been particularly rewarding. I felt the training can have a large impact there, both for individual researchers, by helping them to analyse their data, and for bioinformatics capacity, by enabling local scientists to deliver their own Ensembl training.

What are you currently working on?

Several different things at the same time, and that’s one thing I like about this job.

The summer months are generally less busy than other parts of the year. I have just made a training video for our Ensembl browser webinar series. We will deliver this as an online course with remote support to participants in a couple of places in Nigeria over the next weeks.

While the summer is relatively quiet, I will have many training events from September to early December. So I am currently preparing materials for events in early September, before the next release (after the release they will need updating): A browser and a REST API course at a company in Germany and a REST API tutorial at the [BC]2 Basel Computational Biology Conference. I am working on logistics such as travel arrangements for training events later in the year too.

Finally, I use this quieter time to make changes to my training materials and to finalise this blog, in addition to everyday tasks.

What is your typical day?

There is no such thing! It really depends on where I am and what is going on any given day.

If am in the office, I usually spend the first part of the day catching up with my emails and our social media accounts and replying to help requests. Then I often work on the organisation or training materials for upcoming events and/or follow up from past events, e.g. by going through feedback and passing it on to our developers. If the British weather allows, I go for a lunchtime walk on the beautiful Wellcome Genome Campus. I have lunch, read science news to keep up with the latest developments and write social media posts. On other days, I update help and documentation pages, record a training video or test a new feature for our web page. There are also at least two regular team meetings and a few ad-hoc meetings per week.

If am travelling, I cannot do most of this. I try to stay connected as much as I can, but it is difficult and sometimes impossible. The focus is on delivering the training event and interacting with participants and hosts.

How did you end up here?

I started to work here in 2017, about eleven years after my PhD in Molecular Virology. I had worked in Virology, Genomics and Bioinformatics research in Germany and the UK since my PhD. Over time it became clear that the things I liked a lot in these jobs were reading widely, talking and writing about science. I also enjoyed editing and was good as well quick with it, so helped several colleagues with their publications and theses. I looked for part-time teaching and science communication opportunities and found them in and around Cambridge, where I taught and tutored students at Lucy Cavendish College, volunteered at the Science Festival and wrote some blog posts.

Finally, I decided to make the next step, change direction and looked out for the right opportunity to do training and science communication full-time. When I saw the job of the Ensembl Outreach Officer advertised I already knew the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) as it is next to the Wellcome Sanger Institute where I had worked for several years. I felt that my background would fit well for the job and that the EBI would be a place where I’d like to work, so I applied. Today I’m still a scientist, but not a researcher anymore!

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

I was a little bit surprised that my own training period as a new Outreach Officer was six months. It makes complete sense, but was in stark contrast to my previous research jobs where I was pretty much ‘thrown into the deep end’.

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

I am big fan of our REST API. It is a very powerful and flexible way to access the data in Ensembl. I do like a bit of coding so I may be slightly biased here… but it is easy to use, without any installation, and everybody with programming skills in any language should be able to use it. In the autumn, I will mentor a Google Season of Docs project on the Ensembl REST API documentation together with Beth Flint. I hope an improved documentation will make our REST API even more accessible.