Tom Willis

Tom Willis

What is the name of the company you worked for and what do they do?

I work for the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR), the global R&D organisation of Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. At NIBR we are responsible for carrying out the research needed to fill Novartis’ pipeline with candidate drugs and to advance these molecules through preclinical trials.

What is your role within the company?

I am a bioinformatics intern. As part of our infectious diseases bioinformatics team, I develop software to wrangle the vast quantities of information generated by contemporary molecular biology techniques. Next-generation sequencing methods produce copious amounts of DNA and RNA sequence data relatively quickly and cheaply, and I am responsible for producing efficient, reliable code to interrogate this data for the benefit of my colleagues working in experimental fields.

Can you please give me an insight into a typical day?

My days consist of programming interspersed with meetings. Team meetings are held once a week and we discuss ongoing projects and future avenues of research. Within the Institute more broadly there are also weekly meetings relating to our programmes in virology, bacteriology, and parasitology. These departmental meetings are particularly exciting, featuring the presentation of cutting-edge work and novel drug candidates that may one day become billion-dollar molecules. They are an excellent opportunity for me to learn about drug development and novel approaches in antimicrobial chemotherapy, and critical comments on the experimental data presented are welcomed from all in attendance.

So far, what have you enjoyed the most, and did you get involved in any interesting projects?

The most enjoyable aspect of my role is the independence. In the first three months, I have refactored and updated a program used in bacterial transcriptomics on an almost entirely independent basis. I am trusted to make my own design choices and to select appropriate tools and frameworks, allowing me to experiment with modern technologies. Both my productivity and my CV have benefitted greatly from this freedom.

Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?

In truth, I only realised at the final interview that I had applied for a year, and not a summer, in industry! I see this year as an opportunity to gain the same skills and experience that I would have acquired on a paid Master’s course in bioinformatics, without amassing further student debt.

What do you feel you will get out of this experience?

Perhaps the most meaningful opportunity is the chance to work on one of the greatest problems facing humanity today: the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Multidrug-resistant strains of Gram-negative organisms like Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella pneumoniae represent a particularly acute threat to patients, even in the West, and a solution will require, among other things, novel antibiotics. A more mundane benefit is hands-on experience as a software engineer. The code I write enters production and is used by scientists in business-critical applications. Programming all day, every day, is not something that is possible when studying as a student and working part-time, so I see this year as one in which I can mature as a developer and raise the standard of my code.

Do you have any tips and advice to current students thinking of undertaking a year in industry?

Yes: always be coding. Our first criterion for assessing candidates is their capacity to program. It is not sufficient simply to complete the work assigned on your course; curate a GitHub repository where you can develop and exhibit your skills. Completing exercises on websites like Project Euler or HackerRank is a good start, as is learning further languages or tools and frameworks. For those taking COMP2931 (software engineering), pay attention to Nick’s lectures as these are probably the most important (and certainly the best presented) you will attend in Level 2. Learning to use version control systems, to write good unit tests, and to automate your build process, is just as critical as the ability to program. Nick provides worksheets to these ends on the course website: complete them!