“The pandemic affected my work in a way that I did nothing else than pandemic work for at least a year and a half. Nevertheless, we learnt a lot, not only about COVID-19 but also about collaboration and teamwork.” Dr. Anke Wienecke-Baldacchino
The Bio-IT service as such didn’t exist at the beginning of the pandemic. It was basically a “one-person show” and I had to set up all the analysis and reporting on an ad hoc basis. We (the wet-lab and I) worked as a team to complete these tasks. However, I was still working alone in dealing with bioinformatics until the end of summer 2021. Now I have a team around me. We are able to distribute the tasks and develop new things, improve processes, and make our work-life balance much better. I would say we are dealing quite well with the pandemic now, also given that the impact of the pandemic is having a lesser effect on our daily work. Of course, having a team brings other challenges.
I’m always assessing the pandemic from a scientific point of view since I’m have access to the sequencing data of the COVID-19 samples. I have access to much more information than normal people probably have and I also see how the virus is evolving. I am actually happy not being involved in the political judgment of the situation.
The pandemic has affected my work in such a way that I did nothing else other than pandemic work for at least a year and a half. Nevertheless, we learnt a lot, not only about COVID-19 but about collaboration and teamwork. We had many new people joining the lab. Thus, I would say that the Microbiology department itself is not the same as it was before the pandemic. There are many projects that are a result of the pandemic, so it was and continues to be a lot of work. It’s very exhausting, but in the end, I think it’s a good and positive development after all.
The public health crisis didn’t really change me in a personal way because it’s more about how things came together, I would say. For me it was professionally a very thrilling experience, in my private life, I would rather call it interesting sometimes frightening, and even disappointing.
Originally, I wanted to study medicine, then I learnt that as a medical doctor, you have to learn many things by heart. That was not what I wanted. I always preferred the approach of applied knowledge and its exploration. Besides my basic engineering classes including mechanical and electrical engineering, I was always connected to something biological. I started in the field of biotechnology itself, because I had studied it. At the time it was more about growing bacteria in a big fermenter and doing something with it. Starting a professional career I realised that I could not imagine spending the next 40 years “pipetting” and bioinformatics was just starting to appear in the academic landscape. Thus, I decided to go back to university.
During my different professional appointments, I addressed biology from many different points of view, as a lab engineer after my first degree, later as a patent engineer, and then as a data analyst, I did teaching and research. Finally I “ended” up in an environment, which felt like coming full circle, considering the synergy of all my studies and the working field of molecular public health microbiology.
I would say that I’m (sometimes, unfortunately) very critical, direct, and demanding and I prefer to have good quality work instead of quick and dirty success. Sometimes it is not possible to do deliver a perfect product in the requested time, which bothers me quite a lot. In principle, I think a strict sense of quality is very important, particularly as a bioinformatician and in the field of clinical routine work. We are working on data that not many people are able to understand or decipher. Our job is getting the data, analysing it, and communicating the results. Therefore, we need to be very critical of the results and what they tell or in particular do not tell us.
That is why I’m very cautious about data and analyses, their quality, reproducibility, and validation. It is very important to make sure, that the pipeline is doing what it’s supposed to do. This is why I prefer working in applied clinical research rather than in a basic research environment. Normally, we know very well what we need to expect and what is correct or wrong. We do not search for answers for basic research questions no one ever explored.
My career path to LNS microbiology was not planned. I did not really have a lot of experience with microbiology. However, coming from studying the human genome, I had all the basic principles. I remember that I looked at the LNS probably nine or so years ago, and there was no need for a bioinformatician. The LNS was for me a more public institution with only French speaking public employees. It was for me simply not on the landscape of bioinformatics or applied research in Luxembourg, but rather the “Staatslabor”.
During my last appointment at the University of Luxembourg, I had planned to leave basic research. It was on an off-chance that I met someone from the LNS Microbiology department at a conference at the university and I learnt that there was a vacant position for a bioinformatician. And then things took their course.
There are many projects we are working on as a team. For the WHO BioHub and the LuxMicroBiobank, we are working on a data hub to share information, we are investing in data infrastructure and (small) HPC. For the Microbiology department and for pandemic preparedness, we are involved in capacity-building projects and outreach.
Besides, we are involved in internal projects like digitalisation and of course in everything that is related to COVID-19 or in more general words pathogen sequencing. There is a lot of work, and we do it on different levels, from consulting to coding and process analysis.
I already gave an interview on this subject last year. I would be lying if I said that I did not see differences. The LNS might be very special as we have many male technicians and female managers for example. The “normal” setting is rather the contrary. Science is often very competitive and based on fixed-term contracts lasting 3-5 years, dependent on project durations. This combination can be very challenging for women. Considering the time you need to establish yourself in science, having a good research background and publication record, you normally enter a phase in life, where family planning might become an issue. Knowing it from personal experience and many women in my personal environment, priorities change when having children, which is accompanied by an insecure professional environment. This may be one reason why you see many women attending scientific conferences, but most of them are NOT middle-aged scientific keynote speakers. It is not science as such that “penalises” women, but rather the environment it is often embedded in. I think we need to encourage young girls much more to get in touch with science. But we should not forget to also talk to boys and remind them that girls can do everything they want, independently be it physics, mathematics or playing football. Women play a very important role in science. In my experience, they work very collaboratively and tend to underestimate themselves. Women in science need to support one another, drawing on different experiences and circumstances.
It comes down to the fact, that in 70% of my career I have been able to do things I enjoy.
In my free time, I try to rest. Clear my head from work. I have two children and a big Italian family from my husband’s side, so I do not need to worry about being bored in my spare time.