“It is a privilege to live off what you love”
An interview published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.
Mar Albà is a biologist who has moved from the lab to the computer and the analysis of the genome. After five years in England, she joined the UPF with a Ramon y Cajal contract, and since 2005 she is an ICREA Research Professor. Currently she coordinates the group of Evolutionary Genomics at the GRIB (IMIM/UPF) and the subject ‘Principles of Genome Bioinformatics’ at the master of Bioinformatics at the UPF. Since several months she has added motherhood to those tasks.
What memories do you have from your PhD?
It was a good experience, but I did see that I was not made for the laboratory but for a more theoretical research.
How did you decide to do bioinformatics?
It was somewhat by chance. When I arrived at University College London in 1997, I didn’t know where to direct my career. I joined a Master’s degree in bioinformatics and molecular modelling, and it was decisive.
What fascinates you most about your research?
Trying to figure out how organisms evolve using the tracks present in the DNA sequence. Understanding how our genes have originated and how, during evolution, certain sequences happen to have an important role that natural selection is responsible for preserving. We do this indirectly by comparing the genomes of different species and trying to infer what may have happened on the way.
What have been the highlights of your career?
The studies I made in London in the late 90s about the evolution of repetitive sequences in the laboratory of John Hancock, the first one to use data from the complete genome of yeast. Also the research on the origin and evolution of genes that have recently appeared, which I have done in collaboration with José Castresana and Macarena Toll-Riera, indicating that these genes have an evolutionary plasticity that will be lost over time.
What are the differences in the way of doing research in London?
There weren’t big differences in the quality of research, but it was a more open, more American system, where the merits of the person are what counts, and not their origin or who they know. In fact, many group leaders were foreigners. This surprised me a lot because when I did my PhD in Barcelona, there weren’t even any foreign researchers. Things are changing now with centres like the PRBB, the CNIO or the Parc Cientific, which try to adopt a different philosophy in recruiting and which, being new, don’t suffer from certain inertia.
Is informatics a male area?
Yes, but so are other sciences. In fact, I think the working world is designed for people with few family responsibilities, which traditionally have been men. We must also take into account the instability of the research career and the continuity you need in a system where assessment is done through the production of publications and attendance at conferences. Difficult to assume if you have kids.
How can it change?
Perhaps when more women are in positions of decision, since they have a broader vision. And it’s not just a question of children, but also other aspects of a person’s life, such as caring for the elderly.
What advice would you give to junior researchers?
Do not be discouraged. At times when you doubt about your research, remember that it is a privilege to live off what you love.
What would you be if you were not a scientist?
I never thought I would do something else other than research. I never had a plan B.