Portrait

Alice McHardy reveals how she came to bioinformatics and what fascinates her about her work with massive volumes of data.

“Every day I feel that I am doing something meaningful”

She had never been afraid of numbers. Mathematics and science were her favourite subjects even back in her school days. But Alice McHardy never thought that she would end up working as a researcher in a field of information technology when she enrolled in biochemistry at Bielefeld University. “In the first few semesters I quickly discovered that working in a laboratory was not my thing,” remembers the 42-year-old. A career as a biochemist – working in a laboratory, day in, day out – did not seem to be the right choice for her. “So I started to look for other options that would mean I could work in research without a white lab coat,” says McHardy. “Because the theoretical underpinnings in science were still fascinating to me.” She stumbled across bioinformatics and, during her search for a topic for her thesis, met a group leader in the Genetics department who explained to her everything that can be read from the genetic code of a bacterium using bioinformatics. “I was extremely impressed by how powerful computer-aided analyses are as a tool for deriving information from huge amounts of data and generating new knowledge,” says McHardy. From then on, she was hooked and her decision was made: After her biochemistry studies were complete, she hung up her lab coat and completed a PhD in bioinformatics.

Since then, the researcher with Scottish roots has been plunging into a flood of data on a daily basis, to search for new patterns, unmask a hidden code or solve a mystery of science. For instance, she developed data-driven computational methods to predict the nature of new influenza virus strains as accurately as possible. After her PhD, Alice McHardy worked at the IBM research centre in the USA for two years. She then moved to the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken and lectured in computer science at the Saarland University. She became a professor in 2010 and was appointed to the University of Düsseldorf. In 2014, McHardy then came to the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI). Her research is focused on identifying new approaches for treatment options and advancing individualised medicine in infection research, so that patients can be more effectively treated in the future.

“It is wonderful that I can actively shape my own work and pursue my own research ideas,” says McHardy. “Every day I feel that I am doing something meaningful – and that is very fulfilling.” Planning and implementing projects and preparing scientific papers with partners based all around the world are the particular highlights of her job. “However, I do not have much time for hobbies, especially reading and dancing. My family and my work are my main priorities right now. And building with Lego is also quite relaxing,” says McHardy with a smile. When she is sitting with her four-year-old, surrounded by the colourful blocks, she is still completely in her element: Deriving a meaningful structure from the chaos of a flood of individual building blocks and always keeping an eye on the bigger picture. And there will always be time for reading later. Her research is just as exciting as a detective story – or even more so!

Author: Nicole Silbermann

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