Sarah Butcher

Sarah Butcher – Technical Team Leader

Software Development and Operations team - Building bridges between scientists and software developers

Sarah Butcher Technical Team Leader EMBL-EBI

Q&A with Sarah Butcher

"I started as a wet-lab scientist who was frustrated by computers, then slowly moved sideways into data analysis and later, services and systems support."

Dr Sarah Butcher joined EMBL-EBI to lead the recently formed Software Development and Operations (SDO) team in the Technical Services Cluster. Her team aims to develop, adapt and operate software that supports the ever-evolving needs of biological data service operators and users.

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I trained as a biologist and did my PhD at the National Institute of Medical Research in London. There, I trained as a cellular immunologist working on mouse models of flu. After this, I did a postdoc on virology at the NERC Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology in Oxford.

I worked on a set of viruses that didn’t seem of particular note at the time, but are notorious today – the noroviruses, which are associated with ‘winter vomiting disease’.

Q: How did you get into bioinformatics?

During my first postdoc, I had to learn to use a clunky connection system, which allowed us to search what used to be known as ‘the EMBL database’ – today’s European Nucleotide Archive (ENA). That was the first time I really used computers in my research. During my PhD I remember doing multiple sequence alignments on squared paper, because that’s all we had access to.

I soon realised that using a computing system to analyse my data was a very handy skill to have, and I started helping others in my institute to do the same. As my interest grew, I decided to move to the Molecular Biology Datacentre at the University of Oxford, which later turned into the Bioinformatics Centre. I managed the centre for four years, after which I went back to Imperial, where I set up a bioinformatics service in 2002, and stayed there until 2018.

"I soon realised that using a computing system to analyse my data was a very handy skill"

Basically, I started as a wet-lab biologist who was frustrated by computers and ended up launching the bioinformatics service at Imperial College London.

Q: What does your current role entail?

The Software Development and Operations team builds and adapts software for EMBL-EBI, improving access to internal services such as resource management and long-term file archiving.

It contributes expertise to internal and external projects in areas such as authentication, dataset distribution, and cloud deployment. It’s quite a big team of software developers, systems administrators and DevOps engineers working collaboratively with EMBL-EBI teams, and external project-based collaborators.

We also support external projects such as the Human Cell Atlas, BioExcel 2 and a number of ELIXIR implementation studies.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve?

I’d like to use my experience in bioinformatics and service provision to help bridge the gap between the people who develop and maintain EMBL-EBI data resources and the researchers who use them, within and outside the institute. This is crucial if we want our tools and data resources to be useful and to respond to the real needs of researchers everywhere.

As someone who has sat in all areas – frustrated user, researcher, software producer  and service provider – I’d like to think that I can assist communications on all sides.

I’m particularly excited about drawing on the user experience (UX) expertise at EMBL-EBI, because it’s an excellent resource that I haven’t had access to previously.

Q: What are the challenges of your new role?

The first challenge is meeting everyone and navigating the ‘acronym soup’. I have to get to know all the currently running projects while also taking on new challenges and keeping abreast of new funding options. And I have to do all this while getting to know the potential consumers across many different teams. It’s going to be a big juggling act, but also a very exciting time.

Q: Why did you choose EMBL-EBI?

EMBL-EBI is a go-to place for bioinformatics in Europe, so people tend to gravitate towards it. I’m looking forward to working in such a bespoke environment with access to cutting-edge facilities.

I’ve been involved in projects with EMBL-EBI in my previous roles; as a service provider we relied on a lot of EMBL-EBI software and data resources. I’ve been a user of ENA since the days when new releases would come through the post as CDs. I also act as a trainer on some EMBL-EBI courses, including Bioinformatics for Core Facilities.

"EMBL-EBI is a go-to place for bioinformatics in Europe"

On a practical basis, I’ve spent 16 years with a crazy commute; in fact, for the past six years, I’ve been passing EMBL-EBI on my way to work and back. I can’t believe I can finally swap a four-hour commute for a short cycle ride to work! And to replace central London with a lovely green campus!

Q: What’s your advice for someone who’s thinking of applying for a technical role at EMBL-EBI?

Get in touch and have a chat because we might just have a role for you! It’s a great place to hone your skills using cutting-edge technologies in a big data environment.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Get some sleep!

Q: What inspires you?

Curiosity and the pleasure of talking to others and trying to understand what they need, what motivates them and what would make their work lives easier or better. I don’t think you can work in this field without having a huge amount of curiosity.

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