John Marioni – Head of Research
I want people to know EMBL-EBI as the world's leading institute for computational biology research, but also as an organisation where people are happy and the environment is stimulating.
Q&A with John Marioni
The Marioni Group at EMBL-EBI develops computational and statistical tools to better understand the regulation of gene expression and to model developmental and evolutionary processes. John Marioni shares a joint appointment at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute within the University of Cambridge. He is heavily involved in the scientific organisation and governance of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) project where he sits on the Organising Committee (OC) and co-chairs the HCA Analysis Working Group (AWG).
In 2021 John Marioni will step up to his biggest challenge yet as he becomes EMBL-EBI’s Head of Research and shares his vision for research at the institute and what he considers to be the benefits of being an EMBL scientist.
What has been your career path so far?
I started out doing a maths and statistics undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout my undergraduate and my master’s degree at the University of Cambridge, I found that I enjoyed doing applied work and biology seemed like a captivating field to explore. This motivated me to do a PhD in computational biology and applied statistics. My work now focuses on developing computational methods always with a biological question in mind. Biology is becoming much more of a data science so there are many new and exciting opportunities to explore.
What does your new role entail?
The key thing about this role is to be a champion for research at EMBL-EBI, across all levels, from students through to faculty. I want to build bridges and link our research with the services teams, and our colleagues across EMBL.
I also hope to build a stimulating and happy research environment by encouraging stronger scientific and social links between the research groups. Our students, postdocs and faculty are extremely inspiring so giving them a platform to share their work, collaborate and support each other is essential.
What do you enjoy about working at EMBL-EBI?
I think the environment at EMBL-EBI is extremely supportive – people want you to succeed. You have a great opportunity as a Group Leader to explore interesting ideas because you don't have other commitments to distract you such as teaching. You are also given a relatively long time to start out and this allows you to take more risks which can often be very rewarding. I think that's an undersold aspect of what EMBL can give to new faculty and we're very lucky in this regard.
We are also spoiled with the fantastic support we receive here. I am very grateful for the support that we have from our colleagues in the grants office, finance, human resources, and other teams across the organisation. These colleagues facilitate our work tremendously.
What is your approach as a Group Leader?
I think you should lead by example, you must be respectful of everybody and be open to new ideas. I also try to create an environment where members of my lab can prosper. This means recruiting people who are smarter than me and creating an environment where people are happy and have the support they need to flourish.
What is your vision for research at EMBL-EBI in the future?
At a high-level, I want people to know EMBL-EBI as the world's leading institute for computational biology research, but also as an organisation where people are happy and the environment is stimulating. To achieve this, we need to encourage blue-skies research, while leveraging the resources available across all EMBL sites. One important part of this puzzle will be to recruit from areas that are complementary to the transversal themes we are building across EMBL including applications of theory in biology, multicellular dynamics and the study of microbial ecosystems.
What are the key benefits of the PhD and Postdoc programmes at EMBL-EBI?
EMBL-EBI is extremely international and diverse - something that we should cherish, especially at present. Additionally, I’ve observed how close the students are - building scientific collaborations but also friendships that will last for many years. I really believe that starting your career at EMBL - as a student, postdoc or faculty member - gives you a great foundation for the future, as evidenced by the observation that so many of our alumni have gone on to outstanding careers both in and outside academia.
What is one thing we couldn't find out about you from an online search?
Something not many people know about me is that I play the piano reasonably well. I played in a variety of bands throughout my time at university, everything from jazz to piano quartets to make a little bit of money in the summer holidays. At the end of the day, coming home and playing the piano helps me relax. It gives me something else to focus on. Most evenings I greatly enjoy blasting away at some Beethoven to destress!