As activity came to halt for a number of companies during the height of the pandemic, it was about to get a whole lot busier for Amie Jordi, Head of Business Systems at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as the Institute was tasked by Public Health England to understand the spread of COVID-19.
Our Director Chris McCall caught up with Amie to discuss the challenges they faced as a business during this time and how they managed to champion diversity and inclusion in the midst of a turbulent market.
Actively contributing towards solving real global challenges must be a thrill, what’s it like to work in such a dynamic and fast-paced environment?
There is never a day here that we aren’t figuring something out, working towards doing something better and actively finding ways to improve the way partners and public health organisations use genomic surveillance data to enable better decision-making using data generated. The environment is inspiring because you’re side by side with some of the world’s leading scientists in genomics, and at times the challenge is more around, ‘what do we do next?’ and ‘what’s the priority’ – being flexible in approach is key to being successful here.
The Surveillance Operations Team orchestrate a number of multi-centre projects, this must come with its challenges, what are they and how have you overcome them?
We have a number of projects on the go at any one time. We need to be clear on priorities, we need to be sure we have enough hands on deck to achieve our goals, and we need to be sure that we’re adding value to our partners and internal stakeholders. It’s a challenge at times to find the right balance and also a product of the organisation we work in where a lot of what we do is cutting edge. We regularly review our ways of working, ensure we have good feedback channels from our teams and follow an agile approach to tackling work.
The Wellcome Sanger Institute has played a key role in supporting Public Health agencies to help understand the spread of COVID-19. The scale of the project and urgency to roll out must have had an impact on the Institute. What were some of the pain points you experienced during this time? And what have been the highlights?
As case numbers in the UK increased and as it became more evident that longer term infrastructure was required to support the surveillance effort, rapidly built platforms had to be adapted and scaled to meet ongoing requirements. There was a fair amount of technical debt that was built up over some periods of the project – but these have created opportunities to think about how we support projects of this scale and nature in the future. We’re also actively revisiting parts of the architecture that support the COVID-19 surveillance work and making them more robust. The great thing about working here is there is always the will and the appetite to change things if they don’t work with a focus on continuous improvement.
With tech at the forefront, do you have any exciting tech plans in the pipeline?
We have a lot of technology-related projects on the go. In line with improving our environment, we’re planning to rationalise our diverse cloud environment. We’re also currently engaged in a project to migrate to a better single sign-on platform. We are also implementing a new data lake architecture for sample metadata. We actively review the tools that we use for implementation and are embracing CI/CD principles. We are also embarking on a process to improve our MalariaGEN application stack by upgrading the code base. We use a wide range of tools and platforms to do our work – we are currently implementing Spark, assessing Nomad, Nextflow Tower and various other tools to do what we do better!
The technology industry saw a significant increase in demand for new jobs in 2021 creating an overwhelming talent shortage, making it harder for companies to find quality talent. The Institute champion equality, diversity and inclusion within the workplace, have you found it hard to support this when building out your tech team during challenging times?
In fact the exact opposite. This has been an exciting time to embrace global talent and we pride ourselves in having a wonderfully diverse team. The Sanger is home to scientists from all across the world and our technology-focussed team is made up of people from all walks of life. While it has been a challenging time recruiting the talent in the current competitive environment, all of our team members stood out as people who want to make a difference. As we’re a non-profit, it can be difficult when you’re head to head with corporates recruiting for similar roles – what we have here though are opportunities for people across the world to contribute to the technologies that support genomic surveillance activities that have an aim to improve public health, enable pandemic-preparedness and ultimately contribute to good decision making based on sound scientific data – there is real job-satisfaction here that’s hard to come by elsewhere!
Employee wellbeing is a top priority, what are some of the key initiatives put in place to create an environment where people can thrive?
You only have to have a glance at the Life at Sanger section of our website to see why this is such a great place to work. If you’re onsite, the Wellcome Genome Campus is an inspiration in its own right with stunning gardens, onsite gym facilities and lots of areas for meetups and interaction. We embrace hybrid-working as a model and offer flexible working opportunities, and we have a number of excellent benefits that all our employees enjoy. As a research institute, we’re also all about learning so you’ll find lots of opportunities for development and growth.
As a world leader in genome research, what are some of the opportunities that can and have been presented in your time with the Institute?
We have ongoing collaborations with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), The Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA) and the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) to name a few. Working with such dynamic organisations gives rise to a regular flow of new opportunities to extend the work done using genomic surveillance to improve public health. In the last year that I’ve been here, we’ve been involved in the PAMCA Bioinformatics Fellows Program, a data sharing and analysis project supporting PAHO and we continue to deliver high quality COVID-19 genomic sequencing data to support UK-HSA.