Introducing Karen Ambrose, database administrator

The Crick’s database team leader, Karen Ambrose, explains the vital role of scientific computing teams and how to keep up to date in a rapidly changing field. 

What is your current role at the Crick?

Karen Ambrose

I’m the database team lead in the Scientific Computing team, one of the Crick’s science technology platforms. We’re responsible for all the databases at the Crick, storing everything from genetic data collected by a research group to employees’ HR information.

Essentially, we make sure that the Crick’s data is safe and secure. We work with different teams across the institute to design and develop new databases as well as managing and refining existing systems.

What were you doing before you began working at the Crick?

After I finished my master’s degree in bioinformatics, I worked at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. The main focus at the time was genome sequencing so my challenge was to find a sensible way to manage all the data they were producing. 

One of the most memorable parts of my time there was being part of the Human Genome Project. I was actually named in the acknowledgements of the Nature publication. It showed that the contributions of data management and scientific computing teams were becoming more significant and gaining recognition.

And how long have you been working here?

I’ve been here for nearly five years. My initial project was to relocate all the database systems from the group of institutes that became the Crick to their new home.

It was crucial to keep all the databases running at the original institutions while we were setting them up here. Research groups didn’t move into the building at the same time and even within groups people arrived in waves. 

The real challenge was minimising the downtime and causing as little disruption to the science as possible. Luckily it all went smoothly with a very good team and we finished on schedule with minimal interruptions.

How have you seen scientific computing change in the time you’ve been working in the field?

In the past, database administrators would become specialists in specific platforms or programs. Now the focus has shifted and administrators are expected to be generalists who can work with a range of systems.

As the systems themselves have developed and so many of the routine processes have been automated, the role of database administrators has changed from handling the systems to handling the data. The automation of basic maintenance steps has been the key to data science growing and developing as a research field.

I really believe that you get out what you put in. You need to get involved in things that are already happening and make them happen if not!

How many different teams do you work with at the Crick?

Honestly? Just about everyone! We’re involved with almost all of the Crick’s scientific teams and in particular, we work very closely with the other scientific technology platforms. Teams like Peptide Chemistry, Experimental Histopathology and Flow Cytometry produce vast amounts of data so we work very closely with them, as well as lots of the ‘behind the scenes’ teams – finance, HR, facilities and many more.

We’re always involved in a number of projects at any one time. For example, we’re currently working with Pontus Skoglund’s lab to determine the best way to store their ancient DNA data and also collaborating with the Crick’s Making Lab to organise information on the equipment prototypes that they make for Crick researchers.

One of our main collaborative projects at the moment is creating a common area for reference datasets used at the Crick. It will allow the datasets to be shared in a straightforward way and make it easier for scientists around the Crick to collaborate. On this project, we’re working with other people in the scientific computing team and other scientific technology platforms, specifically Bioinformatics and Biostatistics.

What else do you do at the Crick when you’re not deep in data?

I’m a representative on the Staff Forum and I’m also the chair of PRISM, the Crick’s Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Network. I get involved with these initiatives because I strongly believe that employee needs should be heard in every organisation.

In my PRISM role specifically, I make sure that issues related to race and ethnicity are discussed at the highest level. We work to create a level playing field for everyone across all areas of the organisation and we bring together staff socially, as well as advocating for them at an institutional level. 

We’re a really active staff network and have around ten people who are formally part of the committee and over 100 members. Every year, we put on a calendar of events including invited speakers, trips to external events, training sessions and activities to celebrate Black History Month. 

Last year, I was a part of the committee who organised the first annual ‘Bring Your Culture to Work Day’ which was a huge success.

I really believe that you get out what you put in. You need to get involved in things that are already happening and make them happen if not!

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