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Science Careers: Interview with Caroline Thorn

Name: Caroline Thorn
Current employer: Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
Job title: Scientific Curator
Science Career: Bioinformatics Scientist
Time working in this field: 6 years

How would you describe what you do to a person on the street?

A lot of people don't know what biocurators do. We only recently formed our own professional society. We read scientific literature and data sets and catalogue them with descriptions that allow them to be put into scientific databases so people can find the data they are looking for in an easily searchable way. Most of us have doctoral or master's degrees in biological science, and have also learned some computer science. We apply those specialties to making data accessible to researchers, and we read, annotate, and write summaries of the literature. There is quite a range of people who use the databases: people doing computer science projects, people doing PhD-level research in academia and industry, and people who teach at all levels, from high school to physicians who are doing continuing education.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

I did my postdoctoral research in pharmacogenetics, which explores interactions between genes and drugs. A colleague suggested I check out this new database that examined interactions between genes and drugs. They were actually looking to hire a curator, and it is incredibly interesting work—an exciting opportunity to do something different and move to California.

Why did you decide to become a biocurator instead of following a more "traditional" career path for a Ph.D in industry or academia?

Initially it was about the projects and working on gene-drug interaction. Now a lot of it has to do with how flexible my schedule is—it allows me to spend time with my daughter while she is still little. Ultimately though, it's a great way to keep current with what's happening in the field and still influence scientific research.

How would you describe your work environment?

I work part-time and telecommute, which is an unusual situation. It can be challenging because curators sometimes need to work with software engineers and with the people who provide what will appear in the database. I do a lot of my work on instant messenger, via email, and over the phone with colleagues so things are presented correctly on the website. I have an office in my home. I work 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and I am a full-time mom in the afternoon. It's a good career for people who have family commitments. A lot of my colleagues have children or are caring for elderly parents.

What is your educational background?

In England, where I grew up, high school study is much more focused, so at 18 I took the A-levels (a test students in the U.K. take to get accepted into universities) in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, and those qualified me to get into a biochemistry undergraduate program at the University of Bath. The type of undergraduate program I completed is called a "sandwich course," meaning I did two internships in different labs, one at Tufts University and one at a biotech company. The people I met there said if you want to make a career of doing research, you should earn a PhD, and earn it while you are still young enough to deal with the poverty. Some of my friends who went right into the industry first said it was hard to go back. So I took the advice and completed did my PhD at Trinity College in Dublin, and during that time, my advisor was recruited to the University of Pennsylvania. So, I ended up in Philadelphia and did post-doc work there.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

Being good at digging for information is very important because sometimes what you are looking for is not easy to find. Also, it's important to be persistent and flexible in seeking out different methods to find information. I don't have full computer training, but I've picked up a lot on the job, and I have taken small courses. Computational skills are key, as is biological training in order to understand the literature.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?

It's very flexible, and I work with different kinds of people, like biologists and computer scientists. I like that we can help people make the most out of existing research. However, it can be frustrating when people write scientific articles and don't include all the information we need.

Describe a project that you have worked on at your job that was of particular interest to you.

One of the most exciting projects I worked on was when the Principal Investigator of the project had a grant to take Stanford expertise to South Africa and stimulate high-tech research there. We provided a course to master's-level students at the University of West Cape in Cape Town. By doing this, we provided the students with information they might not have been able to access otherwise.

Did you participate in science fairs as a student?

No, I didn't know about them. We didn't have science fairs where I was in England. My dad did some [science projects] informally with us, and at university, I did a kind of training program. I found out about them when someone from Science Buddies gave a talk at Stanford, and I found out that all these high school students were doing amazing projects. I think it would have been fun to do.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

I think I got pretty good advice. Do things you are interested in and excited about, and don't worry too much about where it will take you and how much you will be paid. Be open to new things.

Is there anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

I think a lot of people would be surprised we exist. A lot of people use scientific databases and don't realize how many people are in the background to actually make that data visible.

What are your interests or hobbies outside of work?

I do a lot of playing because I have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter. I also like to cook, go out to restaurants, and travel.

Free science fair projects.