Eleftheria Zeggini
Photo courtesy of Ele Zeggini, PhD

Interview with Ele Zeggini, PhD

Sarah A. Gagliano had the opportunity to interview Eleftheria (Ele) Zeggini, Ph.D., who has been a Group Leader at the Wellcome Sanger Institute for the past ten years and was recently named a 2017 World Economic Forum Young Scientist. Her research uses large-scale biomedical data to identify genetic causes of complex traits, with a primary focus on musculoskeletal diseases and cardiometabolic traits. Her team’s activities are underpinned by the development of methods to advance statistical genetics approaches.

We asked her various questions about her training, her current job, and her perspectives regarding the field of genetics.

Ele described several aspects of her training that she feels were crucial in helping her arrive at her current position. She has a mixture of experiences beginning with her undergraduate training in Biochemistry, which she says gave her an excellent foundation to understand the complexities of biology. Early in her Ph.D. work at the University of Manchester, Ele gained experience with wet-lab work, performing DNA extractions, HLA typing, and SNP and microsatellite genotyping. With regard to this wet-lab work she commented, “Although this was definitely not my calling (or talent), experience in the lab has afforded me insights into what can go wrong in the experimental data generation process and how this can have a downstream impact on data analysis.”

Ele additionally has quantitative training and a strong mathematical background, which she developed through courses during her graduate and postgraduate studies, and through on-the-job training. Finally, her postdoctoral work was in a highly collaborative environment, which was an important part of her training in “Team Science”—the interdisciplinary approach of engaging a group of individuals with varying expertise to tackle the same scientific question through diverse perspectives.

As an aside, Ele notes that during her training she never expected to be a part of work on the gender balance conundrum for careers in science. She currently leads the Wellcome Genome Campus Sex in Science program, which addresses this issue and supports women in science. You can read her guest blog post in Nature Genetics on this topic here: http://blogs.nature.com/freeassociation/2015/06/sex-in-science.html.

We then shifted gears from training to her current work, by talking about what a typical day at work usually entails for Ele.

“I come into the office just after 9 am. My day typically includes a number of meetings with my team, local colleagues and/or wider collaborators. I have a couple of hours of protected meeting-free time in my diary daily, and try to keep one day a fortnight completely free to work from home. I switch off my computer at 5:30 pm (it stays at work), and tend to go back online late in the evening on my mobile device to check emails. I travel for work twice a month, on average. I find it an enriching experience, but do limit the number of nights away to a minimum.”

According to Ele, the most important skills to have for a career in genetics research are:
● Analytical skills
● Critical thinking skills
● Ability to identify knowledge gaps and to frame research questions in the context of emerging technologies
● Ability to bring diverse teams of people together to tackle a common goal
● Resilience
● A sense of humour

A healthy work-life balance can be challenging to achieve and maintain. Ele provides the following insights:

“I enjoy great work-life balance, although this is a subjective assessment. I think it is important to recognize that there will be times when work takes precedence (in my case this was especially true before children), and the other way around.”

I concluded by asking Ele if she had any last words of advice for those interested in pursuing a career in genetics research. She responded with, “Pick challenging scientific questions that excite you” and “Be open to learning the language of other disciplines and assimilate expertise that is new to you.”

Want more interviews? Join the ASHG Trainee Forum to keep up with new ones!