Spotlight on Bioinformatics Graduate Student | Alison Rattray
"I love science and think I still have a great deal to contribute."
Alison Rattray, M.S. Bioinformatics
- Bioinformatics (M.S.)
- Bioinformatics (C)
- Computer Science & Information Technology
Can you give a quick bio? Any general background that you like to share, as well as your educational and career background.
I received a B.A. in Biological Sciences from University of Missouri-Columbia, an MSc in Genetics and Molecular Biology from the Center for Advanced Research of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City, and a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Washington-Seattle. I did a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University, and have been working since 1995 as a scientist at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, MD.
My research career has primarily focused on DNA and RNA synthesis and repair. As genomics and transcriptomics became more affordable, it was natural that my research takes advantage of these technologies for more global analyses. NGS (next-generation sequencing) produces extremely large datasets, requiring knowledge of bioinformatics to parse the data.
The bioinformatics team at NCI-Frederick is among the best, but what we were doing was pretty unusual and it was hard to explain the biology to them, and hard for them to explain the bioinformatics to me in a way I understood. Initially, I started trying to learn some bioinformatics on my own, through online classes and self-teaching through books and manuals. It was a difficult way to learn, especially for someone who lacked the computer skills that most people seeking a degree in bioinformatics have today.
Why did you choose Hood College? How has it helped your career?
I was thrilled when Hood College launched their program in Bioinformatics. It was here in Frederick, MD where I live and work. Furthermore, it had real professors that I could ask my questions instead of an email that never got answered, as can be the case with many online classes. Miranda Darby, Ph.D., Director for the Bioinformatics program at Hood College, has been truly instrumental in making this a fantastic program by recruiting great teachers and determining the needs of the local biotechnology community.
Initially, my intent on learning bioinformatics was to learn how to analyze my own data, or at a minimum learn how to communicate better with the bioinformaticists. There is no question that my goals have been achieved. But life is never static, and then when the lab I worked in for 23 years closed down, in 2016, I started realizing that this could be a new career for me. I got another job working half time, which allowed me to receive my Master’s from Hood College at a faster pace. Now I will get my Master’s at the end of the summer term! My expectation is that the combination of my deep knowledge of genetics and molecular biology of DNA/RNA plus the bioinformatics degree will put me in a unique position, and hopefully it will be easy to find a job!
You will be completing your Bioinformatics program this summer and will be “rebranding” as you launch to a new phase of your career. Can you elaborate?
Cancer is a disease of the genome. Most cancer cells show some level of genome instability. It varies from cancer to cancer, but clearly is a very important aspect distinguishing the etiology of different types of cancers. My expectation is that my experience in Biology, in particular, genomic instability (and therefore rearrangements) plus my experience in Bioinformatics will put me in a unique place to work on some of the more difficult problems of analyzing genome rearrangements associated with cancers. My “bilingual” languages of science jargon and computer jargon should also facilitate my ability to translate between the two fields.
What did you enjoy about Hood College? Do you have a favorite memory?
I loved having professors to teach me, rather than the online format, which really was not conducive to overcoming my difficulties since the faculty were generally absent. I think my favorite memory is when I first started on my capstone for the Bioinformatics certificate and was telling Miranda Darby, PhD. about the project, and she was right there with me… she had worked in the same area of research for her Ph.D. I just felt happy to have someone guiding me along that actually understood the question at hand.
Any other information/fun facts you would like to add?
I will soon be sixty-five but have zero intention of giving up work for a while. I did this master’s program in Bioinformatics because a few years ago when I started looking for work, it became clear that people thought I was just looking for work for a short term, and then retiring in a few years later. I would not have gone to the trouble of getting a master’s degree if my intention were to retire (so at least that supposition will be quashed!). I love science and think I still have a great deal to contribute. I am so looking forward to launching this new career where I hope to use my old career knowledge combined with this Master’s degree to really move things forward in the genomic instability world.