The matchmaker behind scientific breakthroughs

The spotlight is on Dr Julia Wilson for this 25th anniversary impact profile, a series which is part of our 25 and up: the Academy for the next generation' programme to celebrate emerging research leaders.Headshot of Dr Julia Wilson

Julia is Associate Director and Deputy Chair of the Sanger Leadership Team at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and an Academy FLIER programme participant. Here, we find out why she swapped the lab bench for an office desk to work on the strategy, funding, policy and relationships behind ground-breaking genomic research, and how FLIER re-energised her.  

My journey: scientific researcher to leadership team

I’m a scientist by training, but I left science research in my 30s because I was finding more joy in writing, communicating and collaborating. I moved to a breast cancer charity to manage research programmes, strategy and funding. I found the role hugely rewarding, but being so close to the family members of those who did not survive breast cancer made me want to do even more to make a difference.

Around ten years ago, I moved to my current position at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, an organisation focusing on using genomics to answer questions about health and disease. I have found my sweet spot here, working in the space between discovery science and the clinic. My goal is to take the best science and send it down as many channels as possible for the benefit of the health of the public. This means working on governing processes, strategic partnerships and matchmaking scientists. It’s like playing one big game of 3D chess to link up brilliant ideas and make sure they can happen.

Leaving the lab

There wasn’t a ‘penny-drop’ moment for me, I gradually felt that scientific research wasn’t making me happy. I was quite far down the academic track when I left, having done a PhD in kidney transplant rejection and several postdocs looking at cancer immunology. I felt I was plodding along, not making a difference and the short-term contract nature of science was anxiety inducing. It felt like there wasn’t time to make the big decisions in life. I even delayed having children because of this uncertainty.

My work as ‘science enabler’

My work allows me to be close to excellent science and enable the translation of potentially groundbreaking discoveries into tangible outcomes for society. I describe myself as a ‘science enabler’ because it's my role to form conduits between scientists, policymakers, industry and the public, packaging ideas into cohesive strategies to be funded.

I look after five major areas at the Wellcome Sanger Institute: strategy and impact, policy, faculty and academic programmes and, translation and entrepreneurship. My working day is varied. One morning I could be partnering with pharmaceutical companies so our translation team can make our discoveries viable for real-world use. Then I might be working with the policy team to get our resources freely available to the rest of the scientific community. I also work a lot on measuring our impacts, communicating with the public about what we do, and removing any barriers to delivery of our science.

COVID-19 surveillance

A notable example of the influence of science enablers is the Institute's COVID-19 genomics surveillance efforts, which played a crucial role in understanding the spread of the virus and informing public health responses during the pandemic.

Our scientists had been using genomic surveillance of pathogens to study outbreaks and the spread of diseases for years, so we knew we had the technology and the expertise to help investigate the progress of COVID-19. We took a business case for what we could deliver in the pandemic to Government which played a major part in the pivotal decision to go ahead with COVID-19 surveillance. It was an incredible team effort and we felt proud to be at the heart of it. At one stage during the pandemic, we were sequencing 60,000 virus genomes a week and updating Number 10 on outcomes every hour.

Working with industry    

Another project I’m pleased to be part of is the Open Targets consortium, whereby we work with five pharmaceutical partners to improve how targets – molecules in the body that are linked to a specific disease process – are selected for drug discovery. Drugs are more likely to succeed in the clinic if they have genomic data backing up their efficacy. Over the past ten years, my role has been to engage, recruit and retain the partners by making complex science accessible and promoting the potential behind it.

Celebrating moving between sectors is why I love the Academy’s FLIER programme, which I am thrilled to be a part of. With a bird’s eye view, you gain perspective and can spot areas where something is hindering innovation.

Embracing my leadership style

I’ve had leadership training several times and in past sessions, I’ve been told I should be more assertive, or more ‘male’. The training on the Academy’s FLIER programme was a game changer for me. It showed me that you can be ‘you’ and you can be a leader in your own style and that’s valid and authentic. You don't have to be out at the front saying, ‘follow me!’ – you can be nurturing, collaborative and collegiate, and also be a great director. FLIER allowed me to be my own champion and the incredible cohort of people on the programme gave me a massive boost of energy.

Challenges faced and the need for change

In my 20s and 30s, I was shy and introverted. I’m very grateful to those who saw past my nerves and coaxed me along. However, there were many times when my confidence was knocked, usually by male peers talking over me, interrupting me, and patronising me. Women are often made to feel powerless and this needs to change. I don’t want to see younger colleagues, or future generations of women scientists, affected by this sort of sexism. We must stop normalising it and work together to call this behaviour out.

Genomics is the future

We’re at a crucial time for genomics. We have the knowledge, the technology, and the wider societal appetite to bring it into a more central role within medicine. The UK is a hotbed of genomics research with the discovery work we do at Sanger, the 100,000 Genomes Project, UK Biobank and Our Future Health. We need to harness the potential and become early adopters of genomics and medicine to deliver better diagnostics, therapies, decision-making and drug identification, all of which ultimately lead to better patient outcomes.

Dr Julia Wilson was a participant of FLIER round 2, our cross-sector leadership programme.

Read more of our ‘25 and up’ profiles:

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