Getting to know us: Jorge Álvarez Jarreta from Ensembl Metazoa

This month, we meet Jorge Álvarez Jarreta to talk about his professional journey, Jorge’s role in Ensembl and learn about the new and upcoming features that the Metazoa team is working on.

When did you join and what is your job in Ensembl?

I joined Ensembl in April 2019 as a bioinformatics developer in the Comparative genomics (Compara) team. In March 2022, I was promoted to Ensembl Metazoa Project Leader, which was quite a challenging but interesting change for me. My current role involves supporting my team in targeting non-vertebrate Metazoa species of interest to add to Ensembl, as well as finding new interesting resources to add to our features, e.g. produce in-house annotation when none is available for key assemblies in INSDC. Furthermore, part of my team is directly involved with VEuPathDB, a service similar to Ensembl with focus on species involved in the host-vector-pathogen relationships. Thus, I also have to coordinate the interaction between both projects to avoid duplication of work where possible.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I like the feeling that my work enables my team to do their job better and it makes the objectives easier to achieve. I am not directly involved in the projects any more (as I did when I was in Compara), but despite being “far from a terminal”, there is still a great feeling of accomplishment when a project is completed and delivered on time. It gives the term “team effort” a whole new level. Being also a project leader means that you have a better understanding and knowledge of what is going on across the project, which you sometimes miss as a developer. I guess this aligns really well with my “gossiper” side.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment we are working hard in migrating our codebase to bring in new technologies and methodologies to not only improve performance but also maintainability in the future. We will also take the opportunity to review some old code that may have aged poorly, as it usually happens with large projects such as this one. At the same time, we are also working in collaboration with other teams in Ensembl to add to our Metazoa resources new features such as in-house annotation, BUSCO scores or new multiple sequence alignments computed with CACTUS.

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

I come from a background where I was the sole bioinformatician in my team: whilst I was working in my PhD, I was the only software engineer working in bioinformatics, and during my postdoc in Cardiff University I was the only bioinformatician as the rest of my colleagues were more involved in wet-lab (there were other bioinformaticians, but outside my research group). Thus, I was amazed at how many people with different backgrounds gathered together, and how friendly and knowledgeable everyone is. For the first time, I was able to rely on other people’s knowledge on the more computational biology side, and learn a vast amount of things from them (and still am!).

What did you do before joining Ensembl?

I did a postdoc in Cardiff University in a lipidomics research group. I know, its quite different from my previous experience in phylogenetics. I enjoyed the experience a lot as I got to learn about a field that is rather new in the bioinformatics world and I was also welcomed into the wet-lab (without touching anything, of course) which was also a wonderful experience to see where the data I got to work with came from.
I have always liked the concept of “jack of all trades”, as that is the way I enjoy it most: knowing a little bit of many things, instead of becoming very specialised in a single area. I was always interested in becoming a manager for a team and I felt building my expertise on that concept would provide the most useful set of skills to be a good leader. And so far looks like it has paid off.

What advice do you wish you had been given when you started in bioinformatics?

I actually got this advice from my father since I was a teenager and I believe it has made my life much better: find a profession that you enjoy doing, because you are going to spend a significant part of your life doing it. I believe bioinformatics makes that even better, because your skills are transferable so if you end up not enjoying a particular area, you can always move to a different one. I would also encourage people to not listen to advices such as “that field is not worth it, because it is not trending right now”: it may not be a trend right now, but there is always something new to learn and explore in every single field.

What do you do when you are not working?

Chances are you will find me on my sofa playing PC video games (usually RPGs are my go to, although I am familiar with platform games as well as shooters), or in the kitchen trying new recipes (savoury or sweet, depending on the day and the mood) or improving those that I’m familiar with to bring them to the next level. In order to balance these two hobbies, I try to stay active and healthy by going to the gym, going out with the bike, hiking or bouldering. And always with company (partner and/or friends), I do not enjoy these activities on my own.

You can follow Jorge on LinkedIn and Twitter