Career Interview: Larry Croft, PhD

Chief Scientific Officer
Malaysian Genomics Resource Centre

ASHG: If you could go back to when you were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself for your current career?

Dr. Croft: Then, I tended to good-naturedly let some situations pass, when they needed to be actively sorted out. The advice I’d give to myself is to actively clarify and engage situations, which otherwise might degenerate into trouble. Easy to say in hindsight.

As a bioinformatician, I suggest to trainees that they study core areas which will be useful, even in the future when the technology will be completely different. The technology changes so fast. What future proofs a researcher is a good understanding of statistics, mathematics, programming, logical thinking, and critical analysis of texts. Science degrees usually don’t teach textual analysis unfortunately. It’s found in literature degrees.

Of course, a solid background in how cells works is also very useful, but can be picked up on the job to some degree. Being a bioinformatician is to be perpetually a trainee…but hey, that’s a good thing 🙂

ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

Dr. Croft: The diversity of my job is fabulous. I liaise with customers, give academic talks and seminars, write code, wrangle data, design experiments, help in the lab sometimes, collect samples, troubleshoot and repair machinery such as our HiSeq, and do boss things with our bioinformaticians and lab staff and work closely with our sales department.

A smallish research company in Asia is a very exciting place to be. I have fabulous resources to conduct research and also help others do their research. The downside and my least favourite part of the job is time pressure. So many projects! Our industrial customers require significant time with their large, complex projects, while at the same time we have internal projects, new avenues to explore, and academic projects to collaborate and help with.

So my diary is full, and if I want to scratch myself, I have to book it 3 months in advance somewhere between a business trip to Jakarta and speaking at a conference on crustacean breeding.

ASHG: What do you think the future holds for the field of genetics?

Dr. Croft: In the short term, I see two big changes. Great strides have been made in the understanding of cancer, and now this work is starting to pay off with multiple drugs targeting many cancerous genetic lesions. Most importantly, in the future, early molecular surveillance for pre-cancerous cells and suppression of these cells using sets of the new tailored drugs coming to market. In the longer run, maybe nucleic acid based drugs will become heavily used once improved delivery systems are discovered.

The second big change is to agriculture. A new green revolution is starting, based upon traditional breeding but with an eye on the genome. Already the results are remarkable and genomic selection will change agriculture and what’s on our plate in the next few years.

In the very long term, I hope we’ll be able to co-opt or exapt the nanoscale technology, far in advance of our current technology, which exists in each living cell. Pulling apart a sequencing machine – it’s mind-boggling with micron scale fabricated elements, lasers, microfluidics, etc. But compared to the nanoscale polymerases which do the heavy lifting in the sequencer, it’s a bit like hafting a silicon wafer etched with a thousand CPUs onto a stick to make a crude stone axe. Kind of laughable, really.

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